Now that Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday over, there will be important meetings this week to try and lay the groundwork for the 24 December parliamentary and presidential elections.
The UN-mediated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) will consider the constitutional framework for the elections, with its members still deeply divided over direct or indirect elections. This reflects the national debate over whether Libyans want a presidential or parliamentary system of government. The constitution drafting committee agreed to enshrine a presidential vote through universal suffrage and therefore opted for a directly elected president but there is no wider consensus among the LPDF’s various political factions.
One faction — with ties to the former Qadhafi regime and those aligned with the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) head Khalifa Haftar — favour a directly elected president. Despite wanting a strongman, however, they generally dislike the current draft constitution. By contrast Islamist and revolutionary factions oppose direct presidential election because it may lead to a return to strongman rule. The not unfounded fear is that, hungry for stability and certainty, Libyans might vote for a well-known figure linked to the Qadhafi regime. They advocate indirect presidential elections via an elected parliament but this could increase the opportunities for vote-buying.
Civil society groups want the LPDF sessions televised to ensure maximum transparency. The UN Special Envoy Ján Kubiš, will face the momentous challenge of navigating numerous interests and spoilers. A consensus arrangement is unlikely given how divisive the constitutional and electoral sequencing debate has been so far. However — unlike the House of Representatives and High Council of State (HCS) which have little incentive to change the status quo — the LPDF members are seeking to accelerate the political process. The LPDF still enjoys considerable political and popular support because it is broadly representative and inclusive to a unprecedented degree in Libya’s other key institutions.
The House, also plans to meet this week. Its speaker, Aguila Saleh, naturally supports the status quo because it keeps him in power and he is probably therefore wants the LPDF constitutional talks will fail. This would give him more control over shaping the elections process and would enable him to delay it. While publicly supporting the UN roadmap most current MPs privately support Saleh’s efforts which thereby maintain their influence and privileges for as long as possible. As one anonymously told a researcher recent, asking House of Representatives members to approve an electoral law is like asking them ‘to commit political suicide.’
By postponing its approval of the budget, the House may be able to delay the elections. The 26 May session is therefore probably designed to nominally consider, but also likely delay, House approval. The original amended budget was deemed too large by Saleh and the House for an interim government, which was probably true, but it also gave the obstructionists the perfect excuse to delay approval.
Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah’s revised budget has made few concessions to the House’s demands and only reduced expenditure from its original US$21,768 million to US$21,050 million. The new budget actually increases the amount allocated to wages, state agencies, and ministries. The parts of the budget that were reduced were devoted to development spending and subsidies. Seen as part of the aggregate budget, these symbolic reductions will almost certainly not satisfy Saleh and his allies, who have requested a budget more in the range of US$17,728 million. House members have already signalled that the budget will once again by modified, rejected, and returned to the GNU.
Meanwhile, the HCS chairman Khaled al-Mishri has proposed that, if the House fails to pass the budget in a timely manner, the HCS could take over that responsibility. Al-Mishri has also voiced his disapproval of the GNU’s budget but the HCS is likely to set aside their concerns in order to regain their political relevance and improve their relations with Dbeibah.
The remaining question, however, is what political calculations Dbeibah has made in resubmitting a budget that is so far off the mark. Perhaps he is counting on public opinion — desperate for visible improvements in quality of life — to turn against Saleh if he continues to pursue their obstructionist course. Alternatively, it may be that Dbeibah is under extreme pressure to dole out patronage to the various constituencies that he has convinced to support the GNU. It may also be a combination of the two.
The consequences of a delayed constitution and budget on the elections are unclear. The High National Elections Commission (HNEC) chairman Emad Sayeh has indicated that, although he is ’70% ready’ to hold the elections, an appropriate legal framework is a prerequisite. One can envision a scenario in which the elections proceed despite the absence of both a constitution and budget but Libya’s post-2011 experience of governance demonstrates that gaps in legitimacy — which a lack of House buy-in to the constitution and budget would reflect — does not bode well for stability.