About 63 per cent of Libya’s 2.8 million registered voters have turned out in the country’s first free election in nearly 60 years, to choose a constituent assembly that is to appoint a cabinet and Prime Minister before it writes a new constitution under which fresh parliamentary elections will be held. With 200 seats allocated by regional population sizes, the western region of Tripolitania and the southern region, Fezzan, have 100 and 40 seats respectively; the other 60 go to Cyrenaica in the east. Under the hybrid electoral system, voters have been offered 2,600 individual candidates and some 1200 contenders belonging to one or other of 400 political organisations, and early indications are that the 60-party National Forces Alliance under Mohamed Jibril has established a strong lead. Final results will not be known until after July 16, and while nearly all polling stations opened and functioned as required, there were some disruptions. In the east, armed militias killed an election worker when they fired on a helicopter carrying election materials; the aircraft later crash-landed.

Mr. Jibril, who led the National Transitional Council (NTC) during the 2011 western-aided war to overthrow the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar al-Qadhafi, is a devout Muslim and rejects attempts to label him a liberal or a secularist. Yet that only partly explains the poor showing by the Justice and Construction Party, the Libyan political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which through its political parties has won the parliament and the presidency in Egypt, as well as a majority in the Tunisian parliament. In Libya, however, the Islamists are reliably estimated to have won only a 15 per cent vote-share even among conservative easterners. One reason is that the complicated system has led to voting largely along tribal and familial lines; a second is that Libyan voters resent the suggestion that they need to be told how to be Muslims. Thirdly, Cyrenaican leaders, who seek a federal system, are suspicious of what they see as strong forms of Islamism pushed by West Asian states like Qatar, which helped depose Qadhafi. Eastern leaders — who live above the country’s main oilfields — contend that the seat allocation in Tripoli marginalises their region, and they have already won a concession in that the 60-member parliamentary committee to write the new constitution will now be elected by the public and not be appointed by the constituent assembly. The key issues, therefore, are mainly political rather than religious, as they should be, but it is ordinary Libyan voters who have made them so. Irrespective of the result and the political feuding, this election is their triumph and theirs alone.

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