TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Fears of militia violence and calls for a boycott threatened Friday to mar Libya’s first nationwide parliamentary election, a milestone on the oil-rich North African nation’s rocky path toward democracy after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Saturday’s vote for a 200-member transitional parliament caps a tumultuous nine-month transition toward democracy for the country after a bitter civil war that ended with the capture and killing of Gadhafi in October. Many Libyans had hoped the oil-rich nation of 6 million would quickly thrive and become a magnet for investment, but the country has suffered a virtual collapse in authority that has left formidable challenges. Armed militias still operate independently, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.
On the eve of Saturday’s vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, killing one election worker, said Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.
Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib vowed the government would ensure a safe vote Saturday, and condemned the election worker’s killing and those who seek to derail the vote.
“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 next to a screen showing the face of the slain worker. “It is threatening to the future of the revolution and its accomplishments … and an attempt to stop democracy for which Libyans sacrificed their souls.”
It was not immediately clear who was behind Friday’s shooting, but it was the latest unrest in a messy run-up to the vote that has put a spotlight on some of the major fault lines in the country - the east-west divide, the Islamist versus secularist political struggle.
Many in Libya’s oil-rich east feel slighted by the election laws issued by the National Transitional Council, the body that led the rebel cause during the civil war. The laws allocate the east less than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely-settled desert south.
The east was systematically neglected and marginalized for decades by Gadhafi, and easterners are sensitive to anything they perceive of as an attempt to prolong that neglect after the sacrifices they made during the civil war.
After the NTC passed election laws, several tribal leaders along with former rebel commanders in the east declared self-rule, set up their own council and formed their own army, while saying that they would boycott elections and even work to prevent Saturday’s vote from taking place. They are pushing for semi-autonomy for the east.
Former rebel fighters from the east late Thursday in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns took control over oil refineries in the towns of Ras Lanouf, Brega and Sidr, shutting down the facilities to pressure the NTC to cancel the vote. Earlier this week, ex-rebel fighters and other angry protesters in Benghazi and in the nearby town of Ajdabiya attacked election offices, setting fire to ballot papers and other voting materials.
Fadlallah Haroun, a former rebel commander in the east’s regional capital Benghazi and proponent of eastern semi-autonomy and an election boycott put it simply: “We don’t want Tripoli to rule all of Libya.”
He said boycott supporters would take to the streets on election day to “prevent people from voting, because this is a vote that serves those who stole the revolution from us.” He said they would not take up arms but when asked how they would stop voters, he said, “We will see tomorrow.”
It was not clear how much support the calls for a boycott enjoyed.
Nearly 2.9 million Libyans, or 80 percent of Libyans eligible to vote, have registered for the election and more than 3,000 candidates have plastered the country with posters and billboards. Polls are to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time, with results expected within a week of voting.
There are four major parties in the race, ranging from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.