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Saturday’s violence — one person was killed and two wounded in the country’s east — reflected fears that the country was descending into lawlessness and could face years of instability.

Many Libyans hoped their desert nation of 6 million could become a magnet for investment and thrive. But divisions left by Gadhafi’s paranoid 42-year rule, which pitted neighbor against neighbor, town against town and tribe against tribe has proven hard to overcome.

Gadhafi banned political parties and considered democracy a form of tyranny. He governed with his rambling political manifesto, the “Green Book,” which laid out his vision for rule by the people but ultimately bestowed power in his hands alone.

The last parliamentary election in Libya was in 1964, five years before Gadhafi’s military coup that toppled the monarchy.

The outcome of Saturday’s vote could give an indication whether Libya will become a united nation keen on rebuilding and moving away from its dark past or fracture along regional, tribal and ethnic lines.

“This election will tell us whether Libya will turn into another Lebanon,” said political analyst Fathy Bin Essa, alluding to the Arab nation wracked by a 1975-90 civil war.

The new parliament initially had two mandates: to elect a new transitional government and to name a 60-member panel to write the country’s constitution. Each of Libya’s three regions was to have 20 seats on the panel.

However, in a last-minute move, the current National Transitional Council decreed that the constitutional panel will be elected by direct vote instead, angering many candidates who campaigned largely on the basis of their role in overseeing the drafting of a charter.

The decree, according to NTC member Fathi Baja, left the elected legislature without a clear mandate and benefited the Islamists who will rally supporters to help them dominate the constitutional panel.

Baja said secularists were trying to prevent that from happening.

“We don’t want a theocracy to replace Gadhafi’s authoritarian rule,” he said.

Growing resentment in the east — which was the cradle of last year’s uprising — over what residents see as an effort to sideline them also has threatened the nation’s unity. Local leaders have threatened to unilaterally announce an eastern state in a loose “federal union” with the west.

Some easterners boycotted the election and protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, said Ibrahim Fayed, a former rebel commander in the area.

On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near Benghazi, killing one election worker on board, according to Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council.

One person also was killed and two wounded in a gunbattle between security forces and anti-election protesters in the city, according to the head of the election commission. Nouri al-Abari said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting commenced normally.

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