Explainer: Why Libya's election has collapsed and what comes next

TUNIS, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Libya said on Wednesday its planned election would not take place but it has not set a new date or worked out how to move forward to avoid a return to conflict.

This sets out the main issues and what might happen next.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Libya fell apart after the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and split in 2014 between warring eastern and western factions. The peace process follows the collapse in 2020 of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's 14-month assault on Tripoli.

Eastern and southern areas are held by Haftar's LNA, with western areas including Tripoli held by various armed forces that backed the government there.

A year ago the United Nations held talks between delegates from all factions to chart a path forward. They agreed to install a unity government to rule until simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections on Dec. 24.

WHY HAS THE ELECTION BEEN DELAYED?

Libya's old institutions, along with major factions and potential candidates, did not agree on rules for the election including its schedule, what powers the new president or parliament would have, and who could run.

Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, who is a presidential candidate, issued a law setting a first round of the presidential election for Dec. 24 with a second round run-off and the parliamentary election to come afterwards.

Putting the presidential vote first meant the election came down to a winner-takes-all contest between candidates from violently opposing factions.

Other political institutions rejected the law, accusing Saleh of passing it without any proper parliamentary process.

However, Saleh's law formed the basis of the electoral process and disputes over it grew wider as very divisive candidates entered the contest.

WHO ARE THE MAIN CANDIDATES?

Some 98 people candidates registered for the presidential race - including some who were seen as unacceptable in parts of the country or to powerful armed factions.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi registered despite his conviction in absentia by a Tripoli court in 2015 of war crimes during the rebellion that ousted his father Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army waged a destructive 14-month offensive against Tripoli, is rejected as a possible president by armed factions and many people in western areas.

Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, the interim prime minister, had promised not to stand for election when he was appointed. Other candidates say his presence on the ballot is unfair.

Without clear agreement on the rules, let alone on who would enforce them or adjudicate disputes, the electoral commission, the parliament's election committee and the fragmented judiciary were unable to agree a final list of eligible candidates.

WERE THERE OTHER PROBLEMS?

Most of Libya is controlled by armed forces that back rival candidates and without extensive independent monitoring there would likely be claims of fraud or voter intimidation.

Two incidents last month showed the risks. Fighters closed a court to stop Gaddafi's lawyers lodging an appeal against his disqualification. And the electoral commission said fighters had raided several of its offices, stealing voting cards.

A disputed result could rapidly unravel the peace process, replicating the aftermath of the 2014 election when warring factions backed rival administrations.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

The electoral commission has suggested a one-month delay but the parliament may seek a longer one. Negotiations continue among candidates, Libya's political institutions and foreign powers.

A short delay may not be enough to resolve the arguments that derailed Friday's vote. However, fixing those problems could require more time, raising questions over whether the interim government could stay in place.

The future of Dbeibah and his government during the coming period has rapidly become one of the main topics of dispute among rival camps.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF ANOTHER CONFLICT?

If the peace process falls apart there is a risk that eastern factions could again form a breakaway government at war with Dbeibah's administration in Tripoli. However, analysts think that is unlikely for now.

The more immediate risk is that a political crisis could add fuel to local disputes between rival armed groups that have mobilised in western Libya in recent weeks, leading to a new round of fighting inside the capital.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Alison Williams

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.