Shwehdi shrugged. “I don’t know anything about that,” the lanky 24-year-old said as he smoothed a poster on the side of a stucco clock tower. “He’s a friend, and he lives near me, so I support him.”
After a politically stagnant 42 years during which the only leadership option was Moammar Gaddafi and the only ideology was his Green Book, Libyans are dazzled, if a little befuddled, by the array of posters, pamphlets, radio commercials and even hot-air balloons festooning their cities and towns in the run-up to their first national election in nearly half a century.
Most parties were formed in the past few months. Campaigning officially began only two weeks ago, and most voters don’t know anything about most of the candidates. Even so, many are embracing the political process.
“I’m excited,” said Taha al-Turki, 53, a construction company employee. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tripoli where men smoked water pipes and sipped mint tea with almonds, he held up his new orange-and-white voter registration card and said, “This is our fate in our hands.”
More than 2.8 million people — upward of 85 percent of eligible voters — have registered to vote for a 200-member national congress. The legislative body will appoint an interim government, and voters will elect a committee to draft a new constitution, setting Libya on the path to a permanent political system.
As with everything in post-Gaddafi Libya, the election is provoking a wide range of responses. Some Libyans complain that it has been too long in coming and that in the eight months since Gaddafi’s death, a weak transitional government has allowed armed militias to become entrenched.
Others argue that they are voting too early, saying that first the militias should be disarmed, the borders secured, and citizens given more time to familiarize themselves with the more than 3,700 candidates and 142 parties and civil society coalitions.
“To educate people in such a short time is a sort of mission impossible,” said Imad Alsayh, vice president of Libya’s high commission for elections. “We’re talking about reeducating people who have had nothing to do with elections for 50 years.”
The election was delayed from its June 19 date, allowing the election commission to confirm that all candidates are qualified and enabling disqualified ones to appeal. (Former Gaddafi regime officials and members of the rebel Transitional National Council, for example, may not run.)
Candidates have posted curricula vitae online and hung posters with buoyant but vague slogans, such as “Libya for all and with all,” or, more mystifying, “Libyan first, then first.” And with no polling to tell them what voters want, candidates are treading carefully. Secularists make sure they mention Islam, and Islamists talk of civil society and women’s rights. As a result, all contenders tend to sound alike.