Libya struggles to prepare for landmark elections

A man registers to vote in the Libyan elections in Benghazi (8 May 2012)
Image caption In a post-revolution environment many are hungry to cast their vote

"Voter participation is a religious obligation - the Grand Mufti of Libya," says one recent text message sent to Libyans ahead of the landmark elections for a new parliament.

With just over a month until people are due to vote for a new National Public Conference, which will choose a government and draft a new constitution, the Libyan authorities have been resorting to increasingly novel ways to encourage registration.

Although they have at times appeared desperate, the tactics have so far led to more than a million eligible people - about a sixth of the population - signing up.

There is a lot of excitement among Libyans about the prospects of voting in what the National Transitional Council (NTC) has promised will be the country's first free and fair elections.

Nevertheless, many people still find the concept somewhat confusing.

When you ask people on the street what they will do on 19 June, they give answers ranging from "We've seen it in movies and on the news, we know what to do" to "I don't understand, no-one does".

'Big challenge'

At the Salam school in Abu Salim district of Tripoli, 17-year old Mouad Ali Shebani waits in a short queue clutching a "family book" - one of the documents he needs to register to vote.

He is not completely oblivious to the fact that he is ineligible, but says: "I will try anyway. I want to participate in the new Libya, so there is democracy and freedom of speech."

Mouad is duly turned away by an electoral official, but vows to try again the next day.

The official, Fawzi Abdullah Ghalboun, later says many of those registering still lack even basic awareness of the electoral system.

"Some don't yet understand the difference between the voter and the candidate - it takes time," he explains.

Image caption Electoral officials admit there remains a risk that the polls may be delayed

Another young Libyan concurs: "We don't understand elections. There are some who don't know anything at all! There's nothing on TV even about how elections work, how to vote, what to do."

Ikram Bash Imam from the High National Elections Commission acknowledges the lack of awareness among eligible voters.

"We faced a lot of problems - the very big challenge is the time," she says.

Though Mrs Imam is optimistic of adhering to the timetable for the elections, she admits that there remains a risk that they may be delayed.

In addition to the voter registration difficulties, many of the candidates are unknown because they have only just registered to stand or not launched their campaigns.

Security risk

Khalifa Shakrin, a political science professor at the University of Tripoli, insists he will not vote because Libya needs more time to prepare.

"I'm dissatisfied with the process," he says. "People are underestimating the implication of the assembly's job on the whole system and future of Libya," he says.

"People are mostly unaware of the seriousness of the task entrusted to the assembly."

The 200 members of the National Public Conference will appoint a new prime minister and cabinet. It will then form a 60-member panel to draft a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum.

Meanwhile, the Council for Cyrenaica - an oil-rich eastern region which stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border - has called for a boycott of the elections, saying regional representation in the National Public Conference should be split equally.

Security may ultimately prove to be an obstacle, though officials are hesitant to admit to it.

Image caption Some candidates have only just registered to stand or not yet launched their campaigns

Al-Ameen Belhaj, a member of the NTC and of the preparation committee for the election, says some parts of the country are unstable and that they need to have a security plan for them ahead of the elections.

Earlier this week, some 200 disgruntled ex-rebels attacked the headquarters of Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib in Tripoli with heavy weapons, killing a security guard, over demands for compensation and the treatment of those wounded in last year's uprising.

The weakness of the transitional government is consequently seen both as a threat to the elections and a reason for holding them as soon as possible.

In Tripoli, potential voters seem more excited with the idea of taking to the polls and are less bothered with whether the country will get it right.

It is perhaps understandable in a post-revolution environment where many are hungry to cast a vote they have been starved of for more than four decades.