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Why elections in Libya have been delayed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Libya was supposed to hold a presidential election on Friday. It was seen as a key part of efforts to move the country forward from the war and divisions that followed the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. But now, the planned elections have been delayed. NPR's Ruth Sherlock explains why.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: If there's one takeaway from the decision to delay Libya's presidential election, it's that for all the ongoing attempts to stitch the country back together, Libyans are as divided as ever. The problems began with the very way the electoral rules were decided, says Tim Eaton, an analyst with the British think tank Chatham House.

TIM EATON: There isn't an accepted legal basis for these elections.

SHERLOCK: He says Libya's controversial speaker of parliament, Aguila Saleh, himself a presidential candidate, essentially made and pushed through the laws without the buy-in of the other political factions. Eaton says the United Nations overseeing the process was so keen for elections that they glossed over this problem.

EATON: They didn't push back, and then the internationals saw anybody who was opposing that very contested legal basis is therefore a spoiler in an elections process, which was an equally very problematic position to take.

SHERLOCK: And things got worse as candidates tried to join the race, says Claudia Gazzini, of the International Crisis Group.

CLAUDIA GAZZINI: The immediate trigger for this halt or delay, whatever we want to call it, of these elections was a controversy over the presidential candidates.

SHERLOCK: One is Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman who dominates parts of eastern Libya and whose attempted takeover of the capital Tripoli in 2019 left hundreds dead and wounded. And there is also Saif al-Islam, the son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. al-Islam was convicted of war crimes by a Tripoli court for his role in cracking down on protesters in the 2011 revolt. The interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid al Dbeibah, also wants to run. Gazzini says others thought those three had unfair advantages.

GAZZINI: So the fact that these three are running and were cleared to run by judicial authorities sort of create havoc amongst the various factions who thought they had a chance of winning.

SHERLOCK: While Libya is relatively free from conflicts currently, Gazzini worries it could now be on the verge of a collapse of its young government institutions.

GAZZINI: At this point, we're really facing the risk of splinter groups going in different directions and trying to bring to the fore different political projects.

SHERLOCK: The Election Commission is talking about trying a vote in a month, but analysts say they have to shore up support for the idea that the country will be run by one central government in the first place.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE AND THE HELIOCENTRICS' "ESKETA DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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