TRIPOLI: Fresh faces on thousands of campaign posters have flooded the streets of the Libyan capital where the portrait of slain dictator Muammar Qaddafi once reigned supreme. Campaigning to elect a national assembly opened on June 18 with a modest trickle of posters slapped on walls and pamphlets distributed in coffee-houses. Now massive bill boards dominate the main arteries of the capital.
A tsunami of advertising has washed over Tripoli and other cities, leaving its mark on schools, supermarkets, bridges and highways in a bid to seduce voters ahead of Saturday’s election. The 200-member assembly will lead the the oil-rich nation over a short transition period — roughly 12 months if all milestones are met — with the main goal of delivering a constitution to govern future elections.
The legislative body replaces the ruling National Transitional Council, which took power after a popular uprising toppled Qaddafi last year, and will appoint a new interim government as well as a constituent authority. Libyans have had only a brief opportunity — 18 days — to familiarise themselves with party candidates and independents who are vying for 80 and 120 seats, respectively, in the General National Congress.
Posters of party and individual candidates — the majority of them newcomers in a budding political scene — compete for space and attention on busy street corners. The rich palette of colors that replaced the old regime’s uniform green on the streets has infused the Mediterranean capital with all the magic of a summer carnival. Campaigning closes on Thursday.
The electoral commission deemed 2,501 independents and 1,206 political association candidates eligible to run after vetting. A total of 142 political entities are fielding candidates.
The push to become a household name has seen increasingly larger ads take over public spaces, including residential fronts and phone lines, once the exclusive prerogative of the only master on board, Qaddafi. Reflecting high hopes, more than 2.7 million Libyans, or around 80 percent of the eligible electorate, have registered for the election. But many are still fuzzy on the details of how to vote and haven’t decided whom to support.
“You can’t blame them; it’s a new experience for them,” says Abdelmajid Mahjoub, a university student in Tripoli.
Ahmed Larbi, a postal worker in his sixties, says he “doesn’t know any of the candidates running” in his voting district, Hay Al-Andalus, a posh residential neighborhood of the capital.
He plans to wing his vote by imitating others because he doesn’t know how. This is not an isolated case and many are in on the same boat despite the leaflets and stickers published by the electoral commission to facilitate understanding of the voting procedures.
Campaigning and advertising in the run-up to elections have partly helped to close that knowledge gap, and the electoral commission has admonished media on several occasions for not playing a larger role in voter education.
One channel, Libya Elects, presents candidates and their curriculums in monotonous slide show fashion, in an apparent bid to respect guidelines allocating candidates equal air time. The electoral commission capped campaign spending at 70,000 Libyan dinars ($55,188/44,000 euros) for independent and 150,000 dinars for party candidates but there are no verification mechanisms in place. Foreign funding is prohibited.
Libyans and their international partners are keen to hold the historic vote, the first national poll after four decades of iron-fisted rule under Qaddafi, who dismissed political parties and elections as a construct of the West. Despite fierce clashes in the nearby Nafusa mountains and further afield in the desert city of Kufra in the east, the interim authorities have reiterated their commitment to hold the vote on Saturday as promised.
The United Nations Support Mission to Libya has been assisting the electoral commission and the interim authorities to that end. The EU, meanwhile, has already dispatched a team of 21 observers across the country.
Libyans and international observers seem to agree that the first-time vote doesn’t have to be perfect and hope that it will unfold peacefully despite threats of boycott and sabotage by some parties in the east. “This vote in many ways is a rehearsal,” said one Western diplomat.