CAIRO (AP) — Libyans trickled to the polls Wednesday in elections for a new parliament, hoping to bring some degree of stability to the North African nation, where for three years since the toppling of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi there has hardly been any central government and violent militias have run out of control.
The voting is expected to see Islamist politicians, who held a thin majority in the outgoing parliament, lose ground amid widespread public anger over feuding between the Islamists and their opponents that has virtually paralyzed the political system. Each side in the rivalry is backed by militias, intertwining the armed groups even more tightly into political disputes.
The new parliament could be a step toward forming a more stable government with lawmakers' backing, paving the way for the writing of the first post-Gadhafi constitution within 18 months and the election of a president. Still, a new government will face the same challenge of pacifying militias — particularly if there is a backlash from armed groups over the results.
The chaos in this oil-rich country of nearly 6 million people since the death of Gadhafi in October 2011 has been breathtaking in its complexity.
The army and police were shattered during the 2011 civil war and have never recovered. Rebel brigades turned into armed militias, mushroomed in number and weaponry, and filled the void left by security forces, battling each other. Over the past years, militias have briefly kidnapped a prime minister and besieged parliament and government buildings. Eastern militias have occupied oil facilities for months, even trying to sell oil on their own and nearly completely shutting down exports of the resource Libyans counted on to rebuild their country.
Al-Qaida-inspired extremists act with near impunity, particularly in the east, where the main city Benghazi sees frequent killings of police, soldiers, moderate clerics and secular activists. For the past few months, a renegade general, Khalifa Hifter, has waged his own offensive vowing to wipe out militants and has garnered the backing of some militias and army units and many of anti-Islamist politicians.
On the political front, Islamists came to hold narrow control over the parliament formed in the 2012 elections, the first national vote since Gadhafi's ouster. They eventually forced out the first democratically chosen prime minister, Western-backed Ali Zidan. The parliament's mandate expired in February, but Islamists kept the body in place for months afterward.
Amid the feuding, the government has been rendered nearly impotent. At one point this year, there were even two rival prime ministers — Abdullah al-Thinni, the interim figure who replaced Zidan, and another chosen by the Islamists. The Islamist-backed figure was only recently forced by the Constitutional Court to drop his claim to the office.
Amid the turmoil and violence, turnout was thin at the polls Wednesday, a sharp contrast to the 2012 election, when Libyans enthusiastically formed long lines at polling centers from early in the morning, hoping for democracy after 42 years of Gadhafi's one-man iron grip.
By midday Wednesday, about 13 percent of the 1.5 million registered voters had cast ballots for the 200-member parliament, according to Abdel-Hakim al-Shaab, a member of the country's election commission. Fears of violence at the polling centers and high temperature appear to have affected the turnout.
Voting did not take place at all in the eastern city of Darna, a stronghold of Islamist militias. All the polling stations there were closed because of "security conditions," al-Shaab said, though officials were trying to open them. Polls were also closed in some stations in the southern city of Sabha, scene of frequent tribal fighting. Nationwide, 1,626 centers were operating.
Islamists are expected to see a setback in the vote. Islamists did not win a single seat in elections earlier this year that chose a 60-member constituent assembly to write the first post-Gadhafi constitution.
But it is unclear who would emerge as the winner. Unlike the previous election, political parties are barred from the race. All candidates must run as independents, a step aimed at reducing factionalism in the next legislature.
Some figures known to be affiliated to political groupings are running, including Hamouda Salaya, a close associate of Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebellion's appointed prime minister during the civil war.
There are few prominent political figures to rally around. Many longtime opposition figures who returned from exile after the war were barred from politics by a draconian law passed by parliament last year excluding anyone who ever held positions in Gadhafi's regime. That included Jibril, who was once a close associate of Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam. Jibril's Alliance of National Forces won the largest single party bloc in the outgoing parliament, but he disbanded the group to protest Islamists' actions in parliament.
Interim Prime Minister al-Thinni told Libyans after casting his ballot to "choose the right man" for parliament. "Avoid the use of force or arms, and let dialogue be the way to reach understanding," he said.
First Deputy Parliament Head Ezz Eddin al-Awami asked Libyans to forget about the past at least for today and only focus on "calling on people to head to the polls."
But some polls stood empty, "as if there are no elections taking place," said Osama Abu Amer, of a non-governmental organization called "Possible" that is monitoring the vote.
Hanging over the current vote is the question of whether militias will accept the results.
Opponents accuse Islamists of using their hold on parliament to fund sympathetic militias. In particular, the powerful militias of Libya's third largest city, Misrata, back the Islamists. Other miltias, including the powerful fighters from the western Zintan region, support non-Islamist factions.
The two sides have skirmished in the past and have nearly come to outright warfare several times — though a sort of balance of fear has kept them in check.
Tensions wereo high Wednesday in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, where Hifter's forces and Islamist militias have clashed nearly daily.
The daily Al-Wasat reported that a body of a member of the Ansar al-Shariah extremist militia, Bassem al-Sawah, was found shot to death in Benghazi. The group, along with other extremists, has been blamed for assassinations in the city.
Ansar al-Shariah is the prime suspect in the deadly assault on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi where the US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Last week, U.S. forces seized Ahmed Abu Khattala, a leading militant associated with the group.