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On our first night in Tripoli, our team was invited to the official opening of the Media Centre of the High National Election Commission. It was housed in the Rixos Convention Centre, an impressive and luxurious building, that to date had only been used once: for an African Union-European Union Conference in November, 2010. The building is now the home for the newly elected General National Congress.
The Center is associated with the much more famous Rixos Hotel – one of Tripoli’s most luxurious – which had been home to many of the foreign correspondents in 2011. They were confined there (literally), and only allowed out, with their government minders, to witness carefully selected (or staged) scenes of “death and destruction” caused by NATO bombings. At least that was the case in the eyes of the Gaddafi government and its slippery Public Relations face, Moussa Ibrahim.
This night though, in the Media Center, the election process and framework were explained and addressed by various speakers, including a special representative of the UN Secretary General. We finished with dinner and some traditional Libyan live music. We would soon come to realize – and observe, on Election Day – just what an impressive organization job the HNEC had done.
We returned to the Media Centre for a formal tour two days later, when more details of the voting process and procedures were explained, and we were also given a tour of the HNEC’s Data Centre where the voting results would be tabulated, cross-checked and stored. Everything we had seen gave us confidence in the preparation and organization of the election.
The HNEC had received much assistance from outside the country, especially from the EU, but all credit has to go to Libya.
However, we did have some general questions and concerns surrounding the non-technical aspects of the election, including:
- The complete lack of political and election experience for almost everyone in Libya: officials, candidates and voters. The last election had been in the 1960’s. Even under the previous King, political parties had been banned in the early 1950’s.
- The very short lead time for declaring and holding the elections. The actual campaign time was only about three weeks. Would that be enough time for candidates and parties to get their messages out, and for voters to receive, understand and differentiate them?
- The complexity of the voting system. In most constituencies, people would complete two ballots: one for parties which, using a Proportional Representation method, would end up selecting 80 members of the new Congress; and another for individuals (not affiliated officially with parties) who would be elected in a first-past-the-post selection. They would comprise 120 seats in the Congress. In some cases, there could be over 100 names on a ballot.
We still don’t have good answers to those questions, despite the overall success and efficiency of the elections.
We did ask many people if they felt they had enough information to make a good and informed voting decision, and only met one person who said he didn’t; he wasn’t sure (three days before the election) if he would vote. He was a retired English teacher we had met in a café in the old Medina, who had lived for many years in Europe, and seemed very informed. His friend at the table however, pulled out a pamphlet showing us who he was going to vote for.
Some people told us that, even if they weren’t 100% certain of the best choice, they knew the important thing was to vote, and to be part of this great opportunity.
On the other hand, there were some who chose not to vote for various reasons. There were political disagreements in eastern Libya, and wherever there were some electoral disturbances, they occurred in that area, as some felt that region didn’t receive appropriate recognition or representation in the new Congress. One man we met the day after the election, in a twist to what we usually experienced, proudly showed us his uninked finger.
Gaddafi’s policy of fomenting regional, class and tribal rivalries and suspicions will be with the country for a long time. And of course, Libya had no tradition of, or experience with, political (in the widest sense) discussion, debate and disagreement: something that in many ways is the basis for how our versions of democracies move (or lurch) along (for better or worse).
Also in the days before the election, our team met with the Vice President of the National Transition Council (the interim government), Mustafa Al-Khouni.
He expressed appreciation for what we were doing, and said that what Libya needed from the election observers was “neutrality, observation and truth”. He also talked of the assistance Libya would like to receive from Canada in many areas including agriculture, oil and other fields. He hoped Canada would relax visa regulations for Libyans visiting Canada, pointing out that Libyans now had fewer reasons to try to use a visit as an opportunity to stay in Canada. (I had known that Canadian visas were difficult for Libyans to get, but I heard from a few people while there, that Canadian visas in fact have been much harder to get than American ones).
A couple of final, pre-election notes:
- At different events at the HNEC Media Center, Oksana and I got to know one of the protocol officers, a man named Ibrahim. One night we were speaking with him when another senior protocol officer joined us. He told us of the time he had accompanied Gaddafi on his infamous visit to the U.N. in 2009. Gaddafi’s original plans were that he would stay briefly in Newfoundland on his way home, and our protocol officer was assigned to meet Canadian officials in Halifax to arrange the visa required. One of the Canadians told him that if Gaddafi was going to stay more than one day, they’d have to do a check to see if he (Gaddafi) had a criminal record. Our protocol officer was in a panic about what to do, or what to say to the Libyans. But in the end, our own Prime Minister offended Gaddafi, as he planned to give the Brother Leader a lecture about Lockerbie, and Gaddafi never did touch down on Canadian soil. (No loss for Canada!)
- On our first night, after the Media Center launch, while waiting outside for our drive home, some of our team decided to get their picture taken with some soldiers. I took a couple of shots, but had no idea what all the commotion was about at the end. Turned out, during the shooting, one of the soldiers handed something to Oksana which she took… and then realized it was his revolver. She was in some shock – “I’d never held any gun in my life” – but it was cause for great laughter by the guys (Libyan and Canadian).
Campaigning for the Election
Tripoli was awash with election signs: literally and otherwise. Streets were covered with posters advertising candidates and parties, and there were widespread advertising campaigns: some urging citizens to vote, and why it was important, and others that were more educational, guiding people around the voting procedures, including the somewhat complex ballots.
There were television ads showing some of the current problems in the country (broken infrastructure, poor schools, garbage in the street), and then the camera looked through a transparent rectangle, symbolizing the ballot, and slowly, the current Libyan problems dissolved into a brighter Libyan tomorrow.
Many ads made direct connections to the sacrifices made by Libyans during the Revolution, and the importance of keeping faith with that sacrifice. For example, this video made by the HNEC focuses on the dedication of several women during the fighting, who now are on their way to vote.
Everywhere, the streets and buildings were covered in the red,black & green of the free Libyan flag, and people flashed the “V” for victory sign. Libyans were ready to cast their hard-won ballot!
Next: Election Day