The first part of this two-part article described how Misrata-born Texas A&M University professor and department chair Mohamed Berween, borrowing from . . .[restrict]the best practices of American and European democratic systems, designed Misrata’s recent election with universal suffrage, transparency, and fairness at its core.
Berween’s plan successfully accomplished Misrata’s mandate of replacing the self-appointed local council that had seen the city through the war with an elected body of representatives who embrace democratic governance and are capable of leading the city through the rebuilding process. He and his team of volunteers created a road map for other Libyan communities to adopt and adapt in planning elections. Misrata’s success has inspired Zliten, Derna and Benghazi to join it, as well as Zuara, Qa’ala, Tajoura, and Al-Abyar, in electing local councils. National elections are on the horizon on 20 June.
When asked if there were things he would do differently to improve the election process, Berween acknowledged that compromises were made in order to move forward quickly. He suggested modifications — and Misrata voters Fathi Seid, Fadwa Faisal, and Iqbal Eldaarat gave feedback as well.
A teaching experience for the rest of Libya, there are lessons to be learned from the Misrata election regarding the amount of time allotted to the registration and campaigning, ballot design, protecting the vote, suffrage and transparency.
Time Allotted for Registration and Campaigning
Completing the election process by the 20 February deadline, the anniversary of the first demonstrations against the Qaddafi regime in 2011 in Misrata, necessitated that things happen very quickly. Consequently, the time allowed for voter registration was brief and not everyone was able to register to vote before the cut-off date. According to Berween, people were begging to be allowed to register after the ten-day registration period even when it was extended an additional three days to accommodate the high demand. In the interest of registering as many voters as possible, other cities would be advised to expand the number of days allotted for registering voters.
Likewise, it seems Misrata candidates and voters might have been better served had candidates had a longer period of time to campaign. Additional time for candidates to develop and advertise campaign platforms would have enhanced voters’ opportunities to learn about the candidates’ positions and campaign objectives. Although it does not appear to have hampered the Misrata election, if voters do not have sufficient information and time to judge candidates’ qualifications and positions, they may fall back on voting based on familial and tribal affiliations.
In Misrata, the primary means of campaigning, outside of speaking with people in conversation, was to hang posters. This appears to have netted mixed results. I could hear the fondness in Fadwa Faisal’s voice when she told me she still got a thrill seeing the posters that were still up a week later. She also talked about how prior to the election each time you walked or drove by them, they gave you encouragement, reminding you that the election was just days away.
However, Fathi Seid did not see many posters, something he attributed to the expense of having them printed. Try as Berween did to level the playing field between candidates by not charging a fee to file as a candidate, it may be possible that the cost of printing posters disadvantaged some candidates who lacked financial resources.
Iqbal Eldaarat, too, observed that she had only seen one poster in her district, remembering how she thought to herself at the time that the candidate must have had prior experience. She also mentioned that while the poster included a photo of the candidate and his CV, it did not tell the voter much about his views. Seid agreed, but pointed out that the Misrata community is so closely knit after the war, most people know each other.
Reading down a list of candidates on a ballot form, voters were able to conjure a face to match each name or at least recognise the family name and know the family history. Consequently, although the general consensus is that voters aimed to vote for the candidate they thought would do the most for Misrata, by default because they did not have exposure to candidates’ campaign platforms, many voters voted for people they already knew and could trust. When I asked Seid if he thought it would be different the next time, he responded, “It must be.”
Berween agrees with the assessment that four days were not sufficient for candidates to campaign. He suggested that future elections allow more time. Looking forward, he has proactively initiated discussions with Misrata media to arrange access for candidates to give three-minute speeches at a charge of only 100 dinars each, which he felt would be universally affordable. Seid alternatively proposed publishing candidates’ positions on the election website and in local newspapers. Faisal, who spends a considerable amount of time catching up with Libyan news on Facebook, recommended that in future elections candidates establish Facebook pages to advertise election objectives, CVs, goals and abilities. She cited the example of how people unofficially campaigned on behalf of Ibrahim Safar on Facebook, although he did not have a Facebook page for the campaign. Safar won a seat on the Misrata council and is a member of its executive board.
The ballot form used in the Misrata election was designed to be easily understood and succeeds. The ballot voted on in the Shahada Arrumalia district (as pictured) incorporates a simple graphic showing the voter how to fold and then deposit the ballot. The candidates were listed in the order in which they filed their applications. Berween explained that listing alphabetically would have discriminated against those whose names began with letters from the bottom of the alphabet, as voters tend to vote for candidates closest to the top of the list. Listing candidates according to the date applications were filed also provided incentive to get involved in the race early.
Protecting the Vote
Seid, however, advocated modifying the well-designed ballot form in the interest of protecting the vote. He is concerned about what happens when a voter does not select the full number of candidates designated for the district.
For example, what if a person in a district that elects four candidates decides to vote for only one candidate? Seid worries that this leaves open the possibility someone else may fill in, or as Seid said “steal,” the other three votes after the voter has filed the ballot. He wrote to Berween about this and was assured that no one counting the vote would tamper with it and there would be monitors to oversee the count. A creative problem solver by nature, Seid has devised a solution: he recommends adding boxes to the bottom of the ballot, equal in number to the number of candidates allotted to the district, that could be checked in lieu of selecting candidates, in essence “sealing the vote.”
Seid’s second security concern is about the safeguard that prevents voters from voting twice – the inked finger. In future elections he would like to see poll workers be more vigilant about inspecting voters’ hands for the tell-tale blue finger before they vote. This is not to say that he witnessed fraud, but he did see the potential for it.
One aspect of the Misrata election not remarked upon by voters with whom I spoke was suffrage.
Berween’s laudable objective was universal suffrage and he came very close to achieving it. However, as philosophically inclusive as the election was, two groups were not included: Libyans detained in Misrata prisons and the Tawergha. When asked about the Tawergha, Berween said he would have liked to include them but did not because the relationship between the Tawerghan community and Misrata is an issue that remains to be resolved politically. Perhaps it is too much to expect the Tawergha to have been included in this election, but the fact that they were disenfranchised cannot be overlooked.
Disenfranchisement of those in prisons dates back to Greek and Roman times. Where it exists today in other countries it generally pertains only to those convicted of felonies. Berween and I did not discuss the exclusion of those detained in Misrata prisons. It is not clear if data is available to show how many of the prisoners are from Misrata and would therefore be eligible to vote. Disenfranchisement of prisoners is a thorny issue and not easily resolved, but again it is important to note that it conflicts conceptually with universal suffrage. In Libya this is particularly problematic because the judiciary system has not provided due process to the thousands who have been detained since October or longer. It must be addressed prior to the national constituent assembly elections.
Yet, despite excluding the Tawergha and the detained, the Misrata election stands to come closer to achieving universal suffrage than the national elections if they are executed as outlined in the current electoral law. Article 9 of the current electoral law from an unofficial English translation prepared by a group of Libyan Arabic-English speakers (http://twitdoc.com/view.asp?id=37131&sid=SNF&ext=PDF&lcl=Libya-s-National-Transitional-Council-Election-Law.pdf&usr=libyanproud&doc=81472115&key=key-2dxdj8vuh5sqknfwqd2e) defines the criteria for voter eligibility:
- Voters must meet the following:
- Voter must hold a legally sound Libyan nationality.
- Voter must be the minimum age of eighteen (18) years.
- Voter must be registered in the electoral register.
- Voter must not be criminally convicted of crimes, unless acquitted.
- Voter must not be a member of the Libyan armed forces.
Item 4 denies the right to vote to those convicted of crimes, in essence aligning with the procedure in Misrata. As in Misrata, the problem lies in the thousands currently detained who have not been charged with crimes nor accorded due process. How likely is it that the judiciary will be able to afford those detained their right to a trial before the elections in June?
Item 5, denying the members of the Libyan armed forces the right to vote, is not consistent with practices in most democratic countries. In the US, the UK and Canada, members of the armed forces are not only allowed to vote but special efforts to provide absentee ballots are made to ensure that those stationed overseas are not disenfranchised. In discussions on Twitter I have seen Libyan tweeps rationalise denying the right to vote to members of the military because they protect the vote. I have seen scant evidence of this practice in democratic countries.
How ironic that those who brought freedom to Libya are denied the right to vote. The current election law excludes fighters who put their lives on the line to establish a democratic society from participating in the cornerstone of democracy, the right to vote.
What is the basis for this law? Does it stem from the current concern regarding disarmament and a fear that those armed might disrupt the national elections? There are two strong arguments against this. The first is that participation in the electoral process involves buying into and becoming part of the system. This applies to members of the military as well. The second argument is that when you take away a person’s right to vote, you dramatically reduce alternatives for recourse, which in turn could conversely increase the likelihood of violence.
According to Berween, in Misrata’s election the determining factors of voting eligibility were age and residency. Everyone, including the thuwar and those registered with the Ministries of Defense and Interior, were allowed to vote. In what is known as a heavily armed community, there was no election-related violence. Eldaarat said that aside from the security guards on duty to protect the voting process, there were no weapons at the polls. Misrata’s inclusive example could indicate the need for national election authorities to rethink the exclusion of Libyan’s armed services from the vote.
Berween was fully committed to transparency throughout Misrata’s election process. All meetings were open to the public and the final meeting, at which the chairman and vice chairman of the local council were elected, was televised. This level of transparency, something to which the NTC has not come remotely near, enabled Misratans to completely trust their election process and therefore its results. Misratans are universally pleased with their elections. As Eldaarat said, “Everybody is happy. This is an honest election. No one in Misrata is complaining at all.”
Misratans reached a definitive empowering moment with their election. They are now steadfastly moving forward to rebuild their city, their homes, and their society. I do not doubt for a moment that they will succeed.
I hope that the rest of Libya will learn from the compromises and ultimate success of the Misrata election road map. I look forward to the day when all Libyans will feel that they too have broken definitively with the past and have elected leaders they trust to guide free Libya to a prosperous and democratic future.
© Sharon Lynch [/restrict]