TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) - Nine months after Muammar Gaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels, Libya has defied fears it would descend into violence by pulling off a largely peaceful election, its first national and free vote in 60 years.
Libyans, many of whom had cast their ballot with tears in their eyes, hailed Saturday’s poll as a chance to draw a line under Gaddafi’s dictatorship and forge a brighter future for their North African country.
While two deaths were reported as anti-election protesters sought to disrupt the vote, the mood was jubilant with revellers in Tripoli letting off firecrackers and locals in the eastern city of Benghazi sending up rocket-propelled grenades.
Even in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, which saw some of the worst fighting in last year’s uprising to end his 42-year rule, there was relief that the vote had gone smoothly.
“Allahu akbar (God is greatest), this is the freedom era - for the first time Sirte is free,” chanted a local woman as she celebrated with her family.
The interim Libyan government and Western backers of last year’s revolution, which relied on NATO bombing for support, called it as an early triumph for democracy.
“The United States is proud of the role that we played in supporting the Libyan revolution and protecting the Libyan people, and we look forward to working closely with the new Libya,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
No clear outcome is expected until Monday and questions remain on how the new 200-head national assembly will function, the importance of Islamic groups within it, and how growing demands for more autonomy in the east are to be addressed.
A coalition of 65 liberal parties led by Mahmoud Jibril, the war-time rebel prime minister, claimed an early lead but the national election commission said that was premature given the small limited number of returns from polling stations.
“We have no indication of the advance of any party against the other ... When they talk about winners, advancing parties, all this is speculation,” commission chairman Nuri Al-Abbar told a news conference in Tripoli on Sunday.
A total of 1.7 million of some 2.8 million registered voters had cast their ballots, a turnout of around 60 percent.
But while the election itself went more smoothly than many had expected, the road ahead could still be rocky.
The storming of four voting centres by protesters in Benghazi, cradle of last year’s uprising, underlined that eastern demands ranging from greater political representation for the region to all-out federalism will not go away.
Local gunmen demonstrated their grip on the eastern oil terminals from which the bulk of Libya’s oil exports flow by blocking flows from three main ports a day before the vote. The National Oil Corporation confirmed on Sunday that activities were back to normal after a 48-hour stoppage.
“I think one should distinguish that willingness to disrupt the process from the much wider feeling in the east that the east has been marginalised,” U.N. envoy Ian Martin said of the local feeling that post-Gaddafi authorities in Tripoli have not addressed its economic or welfare needs.
Many easterners were furious that their region, one of three in Libya, was only allotted 60 seats in the new assembly that will elect a prime minister and cabinet - compared to 102 in the western region that includes Tripoli.
In a last-minute bid to appease them, the interim government last week stripped the assembly of its task of naming the panel that will write Libya’s new constitution and ruled that Libyans themselves would pick it in yet another election.
But the move was either ignored or dismissed as trickery by easterners who suspect they are being short-changed in the run-up to the full parliamentary elections to be held in 2013.
“We don’t have a law to control political parties, we don’t have a constitution yet. How can they consider this a legitimate congress?” said 25-year-old student Abdelwahab Al-Ghazali in Benghazi, explaining why he boycotted the poll.
Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group said the eastern grievances would have to be addressed, even if a move to all-out federalism was unlikely.
“The government recognises there is an overall unhappiness in the east and they are willing to address that issue. It will probably be termed more as de-centralisation,” she noted.