Libya votes on constitutional assembly

But widespread political disillusionment and scattered violence keep more than half the registered voters from polls

A Libyan man casts his vote to elect a constituent assembly at a polling place in Benghazi on Feb, 20, 2014.
Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Libyans trickled to the polls on Thursday to elect an assembly to draft a constitution, the paltry turnout reflecting deep political disillusion with the chaos pervading Libya since Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule ended in 2011.

Of the one million people who had registered to vote, less than 498,000 cast ballots, the election commission said, a number far lower than the three million who did so before the 2012 parliamentary election.

Libyans voted on who should make up the panel to write a new charter that will cover key issues such as Libya's system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Islamic law.

But live footage from Libyan television cameras in major polling stations across the North African country showed mostly empty rooms. After four hours of polling, election organizers said that turnout for the vote had reached just 18 percent.

United Nations' envoy Tarek Mitri urged Libyans to "make your voice heard and contribute to your new state's constitution."

"All of us are aware that in a transition, a second election may not motivate people and mobilize energies in the same way the first elections did," he said.

In addition to the low turnout, the election was also marked by minor violence.

At dawn, explosions rocked five polling stations in the eastern town of Derna, a stronghold of Islamic militants. No one was hurt.

Gunmen forced the closing of one Derna voting center by firing in the air and shouting, "voting is haram (forbidden),” an election official said. Other Derna polling stations stayed shut and insecurity prevented some voting centers in four other towns from opening.

Three years after the revolution that overthrew Gaddafi, Libya still lacks a viable government to allow it to focus on reconstruction and the healing of divisions that have come to the fore after being suppressed by years of dictatorial rule.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government continues to struggle to assert its authority over militias that helped topple Gaddafi. Having kept their weapons, the groups have emerged as major political players.

The persistent lawlessness was highlighted by the brief abduction of Zeidan by former rebel militia in the capital last October.

Two of the strongest militias threatened on Tuesday to dissolve the General National Congress (GNC), the interim parliament, accusing it of paralyzing Libya with infighting.

Constitutional process

The 60-strong constitutional committee, drawn equally from Libya's three regions of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south, will have 120 days to draft the charter.

Libya used a similar model for the committee that drafted a pre-Gaddafi constitution that was implemented when the country, then a monarchy, gained independence in 1951.

The new document's authors will need to take into account political and tribal rivalries, as well as demands for more autonomy for the east, when deciding what political system Libya will adopt. Their draft will be put to a referendum.

In the east, armed protesters have occupied major oil ports since last summer to demand a greater share of energy wealth and political autonomy, crippling vital oil exports. The protest group has dismissed Thursday's vote as fake.

The election was also boycotted by the Amazigh, or Berber, minority which lives in the west near oil installations.

Its leader, Ibrahim Makhlouf, has rejected the vote because the Amazigh want a bigger say in the body and guarantees that their tongue will become one of Libya's official languages.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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