Libyans have voted in the country’s first elections since ousting Muammar Gaddafi. However, reports of pro-autonomy activists attacking ballots and continued unrest by militia groups could see Libya’s democratic dreams go up in smoke.
One person was killed and two wounded in a gunfight between anti-election protesters and security forces in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, the head of the country’s electoral commission said. Police were responding to an attack on a polling station.
Protesters also torched ballot boxes in 14 of 19 polling stations in Ajdabiya, former rebel commander Ibrahim Fayed stated.
Polling centers were also targeted in other cities in the east of the country, including Benghazi, Brega and Ras Lanouf.
In Benghazi, anti-election protesters attacked a polling station and set fire to ballot slips. Activists burned hundreds of ballot papers, demanding greater representation.
Later, hundreds of protesters filled a major square in the eastern city, which was the cradle of last year's uprising and the home of the opposition.
They were encircled by at least a dozen military vehicles. The military reportedly fired into the air to curb protesters' ambitions, but after the soldiers left, the protesters began to attack civilian cars, damaging several.
The situation in Benghazi is just the latest in a string of troubling incidents marring the election process.
Libyan voters are choosing from over 3,700 candidates to makeup a 200 strong National Assembly who will then be charged with electing a Prime Minister and a cabinet.
They will also create a committee entrusted with writing the new Libyan constitution which will be put to public vote. Following the adoption of the new constitution, Libya will hold general elections for the parliament and president.
Despite being branded the first democratic elections in decades, regional divides and the widespread existence of armed tribal groups overshadow Saturday’s poll.
The country’s interim leaders, the National Transitional Council, sparked outrage from the East after allocating less than a third of the country’s seats to the region. The East of Libya was consistently side-lined by Gaddafi’s government and as a result is highly sensitive to the potential prolongation of the neglect they suffered.
Demonstrators descended on a central square in Benghazi on Friday protesting the East’s underrepresentation in parliament and threatening to boycott the vote.
Armed militia groups and tribal factions scattered throughout the country have the potential to put to the breaks on Libya’s post-Gaddafi elections.
A number of groups have called a boycott on the polls while others have placed their support behind certain candidates, raising fears of potential skirmishes between rival factions.
The run-up to the elections has been dogged with violence across the country from armed groups. Gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials close to the eastern city of Benghazi on the eve of Election Day, killing an election worker.
In addition, earlier in the week armed protesters calling for autonomy in Libya’s East ransacked an election bureau in Benghazi. They burned ballot papers and destroyed computers whilst shouting pro-federalism chants.
In response to the growing unrest the interim government’s Prime Minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib said that he would ensure a safe vote on Saturday.
"Any action aimed at hindering the election process is against the supreme interest of the nation and serves only the remnants of the old regime,'' he said following the helicopter attack on Friday. "It is threatening to the future of the revolution and its accomplishments … and an attempt to stop democracy for which Libyans sacrificed their souls.''
Political columnist Ted Rall told RT that he is skeptical about the Libyan elections.
“Those of us who remember what happened during the first elections after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq remember seeing similar images at that time, and we know what followed. We are still dealing with years of civil war and sectarian conflicts,” he said.
Rall believes that one of the problems the United States faces with its regime change operations is that it does not understand something very basic about elections: “You really should not hold any elections until you have established a civil society, and for that matter, law and order,” he explained.
Libya needs to settle into the idea of unified Libyan nation state, something all Libyans regardless of their sectarian tendencies or tribal affiliations can get behind, Rall asserted, and there is no point to hold elections until that is achieved.
“Even if you did not have violence, what you would have is a civil war carried out at ballot boxes, where different sects and tribes are running candidates against one another and trying to dominate the countrymen that way.”
“That is not a recipe for democracy,” he concluded.
The majority of the candidates up for vote in Saturday’s polls have an Islamic agenda, suggesting that Libya may follow in the footsteps of Egypt and Tunisia with a Muslim-dominated government.
The NTC have already asserted that they will consider Sharia law when writing the new Libyan constitution. However, the various parties take differing views as to the extent Sharia law should be enforced in Libya.
Partial results will be available when ballots close at 18:00 GMT on Saturday, giving some indication as to how the new assembly will look. Full preliminary results of the elections will be released on Monday.