Libyan voters went to the polls in Benghazi May 19 to elect members of the city’s local council. It was the first election held there in more than four decades. Though NDI did not field an international observation mission, Megan Doherty, NDI resident senior program officer in Libya, was accredited to observe the vote. Here she shares her informal observations of the voting process.
Voters turned out in ample numbers in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi to elect 41 members to the city’s local council. According to local election authorities, 441 candidates stood for election. While there were no reliable estimates of the size of Benghazi’s voting population, 200,000 citizens reportedly registered.
Local authorities declared a public holiday to encourage citizens to vote. At midday and afternoon prayers, imams in local mosques also urged people to participate in the polls and to vote their conscience. Security forces were deployed throughout the city and in front of polling stations to maintain order.
The vote followed a two-week campaign that saw candidates using posters, leaflets and, to a lesser extent, in-person gatherings to court voters. Some candidates complained that despite the two-week campaign period, the Benghazi local election commission did not share official candidate and campaign regulations until one week before election day.
Election observers from civil society organizations and candidate representatives monitored polling throughout the city. One local observer told visiting NDI representatives that, “This is new to us. People come here and they don’t know how to vote and they ask me what to do and even who to vote for. I tell them I can’t help them make that choice; they have to do it on their own.” Some observers seemed unsure of their role, in some cases interfering in the polls. In one polling station, visiting NDI representatives saw an observer conferring with polling station officials over whether to discount a ballot on which someone had circled the name of his preferred candidate instead of marking the box next to the candidate’s name.
Some polling stations opened as late as two hours after the 8 a.m. scheduled start time due to the delayed arrival of ballot boxes and materials. In several of these stations, NDI staff noted that voters waited patiently and did not let logistical delays dampen the excitement of voting. At one polling station, a truck carrying ballot boxes arrived at 9:45 a.m. to cries of “Allahu Akbar! [God is great!]” from the gathered crowd. At a 2:30 p.m. press conference, the head of the local election commission acknowledged the late start in polling stations in three of 11 districts but described the election as a learning experience that would help Libyans better prepare for national elections later this year.
There was considerable enthusiasm among both voters and poll workers, many of whom were young Libyan men and women. One polling station official told visiting NDI representatives, “I have been crying since this morning—crying for joy. I never thought we could do something like this, but here we are doing it. We are so proud today.” Another polling station official had gone out of her way to decorate the polling station in the black, red and green of Libya’s new flag, hanging balloons, ribbons and pendants across the room. “Some people may be nervous, since this is our first time to vote,” she explained, “I want them to feel comfortable and welcome.”
By most accounts, the day proceeded relatively smoothly. Polling centers appeared orderly and well-managed. However, anecdotal evidence that NDI collected from visits to polling stations, as well as experiences shared by NDI staff and partners, did point to a number of inconsistencies in election administration. Although these may not be have been pervasive or systematic, they provide an indication of the kinds of operational considerations that should be addressed and clarified for the upcoming national elections, as well as for the constitutional referendum and legislative elections that are anticipated within the next two years.
For example, despite signage in polling stations banning cellphones and cameras, voters and poll workers alike used them openly. There were differences in where and when poll workers checked the identification of voters; in some instances people without proper identification or accreditation were allowed to enter polling stations. In some instances, the polling booths were placed in front of doors or windows, allowing passersby to see the ballot being marked by voters. In some stations, voters in separate booths spoke openly to each other while voting. There was also confusion over whether poll workers and election officials were allowed to vote. Several poll workers told NDI that despite being advised previously that they would not be able to vote, on arrival at their polling stations they were notified that they could cast their ballots – posing a dilemma for those assigned to stations in different neighborhoods from where they had registered.
Voters appeared satisfied with the experience, proudly waving ink-stained fingers outside of polling stations. Other reactions were more somber. One voter told NDI representatives, “I’m thinking of the friends I lost in the revolution who couldn’t be here today. They gave their lives for this.”
Despite the visible enthusiasm for the polls, there appeared to be some confusion among voters about the role of the elections. Some voters were not clear on the job of the local council, with some believing incorrectly that the winners of the Benghazi vote would automatically become candidates for the national elections in June. One voter told visiting NDI representatives that “this election is about us telling the NTC [National Transition Council] we don’t need them to tell us what to do.” Other voters seemed to view these elections as a demonstration of pride in the city that launched the revolution – and as preparation for the national elections next month – rather than as a poll designed to elect a local council accountable to the city’s voters. All told, however, enthusiasm and pride were on display, showing how citizens felt empowered through the act of voting.
- Notes from Benghazi: Libyans hungry for information and help»
- Notes from Benghazi: Looking ahead»
- Notes from Benghazi: Political parties look to the future»
Published May 25, 2012