On Thursday, February 20, Libya held nationwide elections to elect a 60 member committee that was meant to draft the new Libyan constitution. These elections, however, were marred by several major issues. The first of these was violence, as Islamist extremist groups shut down several voting centers through violence, and dissuaded voters from going to the polls in other locations. Perhaps even more distressing, however, was the incredibly low turnout of voters, as less than 50% of registered voters voted in the elections, which actually accounts for less than one fifth of the entire eligible voting population. Many commentators see this low turnout as being due to a growing disillusionment in the political process, which has stalled so badly that in recent weeks local militias have actually given the ruling body in Libya, the General National Congress (GNC), a deadline by which to step down.
This widespread disillusionment stems from several sources, most importantly the inability of governing structures to provide security, economic growth or political progress. Certainly, in a nation that is marked by ethnic, geographic and economic cleavages, it would be a challenge for any political body to create a stable and functioning state. This is further exacerbated by the reality that Qaddafi’s regime sought to eliminate any forms of opposition of civil society. For observers, it was clear that Libya’s path to a democratic system faced very real challenges.
Even when considering these challenges, however, this feeling of disillusionment in the political process is concerning for those seeking the growth of democracy in Libya. One of the challenges of consolidating democratic systems is that when certain administrations or government institutions fail, the populations may not lose faith only in the political elites of the moment, but also in the actual democratic political system. In essence, ineffective or corrupt elites can damage the prospects of democratization. It seems that there is some possibility of this happening in Libya if this new assembly proves ineffective in forging a national constitution within its allotted time limit. As public apathy grows in the face of ineffective democratic institutions, other non-democratic forces such as Islamist extremist groups and other militias will be encouraged to seek to further consolidate their power. In turn, residents may grow increasingly likely to look to these forces for governance and stability.
In conclusion, the low turnout for this last election demonstrates a growing trend of disappointment with the institutions involved in the democratic transition. Unless some effective governance comes out of this constitutional process, there is a chance that the population may seek other alternative forms of governance that could bring security and stability at the expense of democracy.