RPT- Democracy a learning process as Libya set to vote

Fri Jun 29, 2012 12:44pm IST

* Under Gaddafi political parties were banned

* Voters ask basics of process

* More than 3,000 candidates running

By Hadeel Al Shalchi

TRIPOLI, June 28 (Reuters) - In the small courtyard of a kindergarten in Tripoli, about 20 women gather to hear why they should vote for Majdah al-Fallah in Libya's first elections in almost half a century.

Dressed in a long robe and Islamic headscarf, the 46-year-old doctor introduces herself and her party. But when she opens the floor to discussion, Fallah is bombarded by the most basic questions, not about her policies, but about how elections work.

"What is actually going to happen when we go to the polling station. How many people do we vote for?" one woman asks.

What will the elected assembly do, others ask, and what is the role of political parties in government. Though she is running for the formidable Muslim Brotherhood, there are no flashy campaign managers mapping Fallah's every step, no loudspeakers, microphones, balloons or streamers.

Almost a year after Libyans ousted Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed rebellion, they are preparing to elect a 200-strong assembly that will help to draft a new constitution for the new Libya they hope to build.

The Brotherhood, the most politically sophisticated and well financed group running, is expected to do well after receiving a boost from the Islamist victory in Egypt.

Al-Wattan, a group led by former militia leader Abdul Hakim Bel Haj, is highly visible. Mahmoud Jibril's coalition is also popular with Libyans who were impressed by the political skills he displayed in the uprising.

But the election rules are likely to usher in an assembly dominated by a fragmented patchwork of independents representing competing local interests rather than fixed ideologies.

And while 2.7 million Libyans registered to vote -- almost 80 percent of eligible voters in the North African country -- most are still struggling to learn the rules of democracy only days before they put it into practice on July 7.

"Under Gaddafi, we were taught that people in political parties were traitors to the state," teacher Fawzia Masoud said.

"Now we are learning what a party is, what it does and how elections are held. We've never done this before but it's exciting."

Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, where sham elections regularly saw serious opponents sidelined and veteran leaders re-elected with over 90 percent of the vote, Libyans last went to polls in 1964 under King Idriss, who was overthrown by Gaddafi five years on.

During Gaddafi's 42-year rule, parties were banned and political institutions were virtually non-existent.

For most Libyans, July 7 will be the first time they cast a ballot. Understaffed and underfunded, the commission organising the election has already been forced to put voting back from the original June 19 date and has struggled to explain how the new system will work.

"We need rallies and conferences and people to go into homes and teach simpler people about the elections," said Fatima Gleidan, 47, who attended Fallah's gathering last week.

"The media is not doing enough to teach people about the role of the national assembly or how to choose from a list of independent or party candidates."

LEGITIMACY WORRIES

Amid the confusion, the capital of Libya is oddly subdued almost a week before voting day. Walls are only just filling with the usual posters of candidates flashing toothy smiles. Banners are few and far between. There are no noisy rallies, with loudspeakers blaring the virtues of rival parties.

It's hard to believe more than 3,000 people are running.

The complex electoral system - a mix of majoritarian and proportional representation - has added to the confusion. About 2,500 people are running as individuals and will vie for 120 seats. The remaining 80 seats go to members on party lists.

And the late start to campaigning means that, with days to go, Libyans are hard pressed to identify leading candidates and analysts are struggling to predict who the front runners are.

"Campaigning is virtually non-existent not just in Tripoli, but also in more remote areas," said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch in Libya.

"There is little information about the candidates and the political entities and, most importantly, what these candidates stand for and what their political agendas are."

Campaigning has picked up as election day has drawn near, but it may not be enough for voters to make educated choices.

Some may simply be too scared to go to the polls as Libya's interim rulers struggle to impose their authority on the myriad militias who helped oust Gaddafi and are now vying for power.

With such a lack of voter awareness and serious concerns about security, some experts are worried that the legitimacy of Libya's democratic experiment may be at undermined.

"There's a lot of nervousness and anxiety in the process and everyone wants it to go well, so people are being a little cautious moving forward," said Ian Smith, head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Libya.

"There is no question of the elections failing, it's more of a question of how good will the level of legitimacy be?

"The political will is there, voters will come out, we just want to do everything to make sure that the results are accurate and reflective of the will of the people," he said.

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