The chances of Libya staging its first presidential elections on the long planned date of 24 December appeared close to collapse on Sunday after the body overseeing the vote said it was unable to announce the the approved candidates because of continued legal doubts.
With the elections less than a fortnight away and virtually no time for campaigning, a postponement would represent a bitter blow to the international community’s hopes of reuniting the deeply divided country.
Foreign powers will also fear the overall momentum towards democracy could dissipate. In the short term they will have to agree whether or not the interim government continues in order to fill the political vacuum and prevent a return to civil war.
A series of court rulings have overturned the Libyan electoral commission’s decisions to block high-profile figures including Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former dictator, from standing for the presidency.
The interim prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and warlord Khalifa Haftar, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army, have meanwhile been approved by the commission but subsequently appealed by other parties.
It said in a statement on Saturday it said could not announce the names of the approved candidates out of the nearly who 100 have applied because it was “keen to exhaust all means of litigation to ensure its decisions comply with issued judgements”.
Rival factions have accused each other of intimidating or bribing judicial officials to secure their reinstatement of their candidates, and the commission is looking to see if the decisions were valid.
In the case of Dbeibah, he had pledged as a condition of becoming interim PM that he would not stand for election but has since argued in court that this was a moral pledge with no legal force. Saif Gaddafi was convicted in absentia in 2015 on war crimes charges for his part in fighting the revolution that toppled his father, Muammar Gaddafi. He denies wrongdoing.
The presence of tens of thousands of foreign fighters, mercenaries and indigenous militia make the country a tinderbox, and there are fears an election conducted with disputed candidates would only lead to a result that was not recognised. In a sign of the tensions over foreign forces, France is pressing the EU to agree on Monday to impose sanctions on the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, which it says operates in Libya and the Sahel. Moscow denies Wagner is linked to the Russian state and has said it would retaliate against EU sanctions placed on its citizens.
The international community’s ability to demand the Libyan political class stick to the 24 December election date, which was first agreed in February, has been hampered by the appointment of a UN special envoy, Ján Kubiš, who resigned three weeks before the elections after less than a year in the post.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has since appointed Stephanie Williams, a forceful former UN deputy special envoy, to act as his special adviser. Russia vetoed her appointment as a full envoy, but she has deep knowledge of Libya and last year displayed a willingness to confront those in the political class opposed to elections.
The UN mission issued a statement urging all sides not to reverse the gains made, pointing to the registration of nearly 3 million voters, the successful distribution of voter cards and the applications of large numbers of candidates for the presidency and parliament as signs of deep popular support for elections.
The US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, said “refusing to go to the elections and mobilising to obstruct will only place the fate and future of the country at the mercy of those inside Libya and their external backers who prefer bullet power over ballot power”.