TRIPOLI (Reuters) - International observers declared Libya’s landmark national assembly election a success on Monday, concluding that violent incidents and anti-vote protests in the restive east failed to stop Libyans from turning out in large numbers.
The United Nations, United States and other Western backers of last year’s uprising that ended the 42-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi have already given good marks to what was the North African state’s first free national election in six decades.
“It is remarkable that nearly all Libyans cast their ballot free from fear or intimidation,” Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the European Union Assessment Team told a news conference.
“These incidents do not put into question the national integrity of the elections as a whole,” he said, alluding to cases of thefts and burnings of ballot boxes and protests by demonstrators seeking more autonomy for the east of the country. Two people were reported killed in the unrest.
The EU team toured half a dozen major cities including the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, the fount of the uprising, but did not go to the desert south, where security remains precarious because of tribal clashes.
The U.S.-based Carter Center said its 45-strong observation team was also absent from the south and acknowledged that its operation for Saturday’s election had been somewhat limited.
“Eleven months after the building on a new nation, there are bound to be spoilers ... Libyans determined to continue with the voting process is what gives us hope for the future,” said John Stremlau, Carter Center vice-president of peace programmes.
Nearly 1.8 million of 2.8 million registered voters cast their ballots, a turnout of around 65 percent, authorities said.
Official results were to be published district by district later on Monday. Local media have suggested that a party bloc led by wartime prime minister Mahmoud Jibril is leading Islamic groups such as the political wing of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood.
However it could be premature to suggest that outcome in itself breaks with a trend towards Islamic parties gaining power in other Arab Spring countries including Egypt and Tunisia.
The Western-educated Jibril rejects the labels of secular and liberal and says sharia (Islamic law) is one of the principles of the alliance. On Sunday he offered to form a grand coalition with all political forces in Libya.
Moreover, parties have only been allotted 80 out of 200 seats in an assembly whose task is to name a prime minister and cabinet before readying parliamentary elections in 2013 on the basis of a yet-to-be-drafted constitution. The remaining 120 seats will go to independent candidates.
“We have no way of knowing yet how they will align themselves,” said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch, noting that justice sector reform, women’s rights and freedom of expression would be litmus tests of the next leadership’s real stance.
Reaction to Jibril’s coalition call was cautiously positive.
“The door is open to dialogue now for all Libyans,” Ali Rhouma El-Sibai, head of the hardline Islamic Al-Assala Group, told Reuters. “But no agreement is possible until we know what is on the table. We cannot compromise our principles.”
No comment was available from the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Watan, an group led by former rebel militia leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, said it was studying the call.
In Benghazi, moderate independent candidate Younis Fanoush welcomed the call. “It is the right time for it - it is not beyond the realm of possibility,” he told Reuters.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the “peaceful, democratic spirit” of the vote and U.S. President Barack Obama said he looked forward to working with a new Libyan leadership.
However 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 regional autonomy will not go away.
Local gunmen, demonstrating their grip on the eastern oil terminals from which the bulk of Libya’s oil exports flow, blocked 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.
Many easterners are furious that their region, one of three in Libya, was only allotted 60 seats in the new assembly compared to 102 for the western region that includes Tripoli.
Analysts say one of Libya’s priorities is to address the eastern grievances in the drafting of a new constitution, even if a shift to full-blown federalism is unlikely.