By Yolanda Zaptia.
Tripoli, 6 May:
Voter and candidate registration centres opened across Libya on 1 May. For the majority of Libyans who . . .[restrict]have only known 42 years of dictatorship, the elections in June will be their first time to vote. However, given that the 3.4 million Libyans eligible to vote have only 14 days to register, the level of public awareness, enthusiasm and overall participation seems alarmingly lacklustre. Reports are that 330,000 are expected to have registered by 6 pm Sunday. This would mean that nearly 10 percent of those eligible to vote have registered – but it leaves only 8 days left for this essential voter registration message to reach hundreds of thousands of other Libyans.
Living in Tripoli there is not really much evidence that a landmark election is approaching. There is even less awareness generally among Libyans, who having suffered, survived and won their revolution, that if they do not register within the next eight days they will not have the chance to vote and shape the future they fought for. At the moment, unless voter registration rates significantly improve, it looks like the majority of Libyans whose voices went unheard for over 40 years, and who are now expecting so much from their future in the new Libya, risk losing out again.
The problem is not voter apathy as in many mature democracies – but primarily voter ignorance. The tragedy here is that the Libyans whom many have entrusted to guide them through this new political process are, for whatever reasons and excuses, failing them. These are the people in power who have known for over a year that democratic elections would be a landmark feature for establishing the new Libya. Instead they are still faced with millions who really know little more about the democratic process and the importance of their role and responsibilities as citizens in making it a success, than they did pre-revolution.
The clamouring teams of international advisors and consultants working with Libya’s decision makers on the elections, democracy building, improving communication, and so forth — be they Libyan or international — do not seem to have much to show for their time and efforts. Is the problem that the advisors are advising but no one has been listening? If yes, then maybe Libyans need to be asking what advice on the best practices needed to fully engage Libyans in the democracy-building process, voter registration and their elections has been given but not heeded. Or is it that the advice prescribed is lacking and not right for Libya?
It is the responsibility of Libya’s leadership teams and their advisors, be they NTC or government-appointed, to be accountable for their decisions as to what resources have been allocated to developing the election processes and voter education. This is important because it is their decisions, good or bad, that are shaping or risk jeopardising what direction Libya’s political future takes next.
Nearly one week into a two-week registration process, I am pleased to say that some billboard notices about voter registration are finally starting to appear and this may mark the start of a very belated official information campaign. However, how effective this communication with Libya’s 3.4 million potential voters on the significance of registering and how to register will ultimately be judged by the number of Libyans who do actually register by 14 May. The reality is that what is happening cannot be described as a well co-ordinated public information campaign. Is it that surprising, given that to date those responsible for helping manage change in Libya, have not been that keen on communicating effectively with the Libyan people and that habit seems difficult to break – regardless of the consequences for democracy in Libya? Or maybe voter registration is not seen as being a priority.
Driving around Tripoli, some other evidence that something may be happening are the otherwise inconsequential white and orange signs on buildings identifying them as voter registration centres. However, for something so symbolic, it is a pity to see that the Libyan flag is not displayed in full colour – but just as a black and white image. People say there has been one Al-Madar mobile phone text message sent so far – nothing yet on my Libyana.
For something so important, I am surprised that the authorities or the local and/or international media companies contracted to advise or work on these campaigns have not organised for Al-Madar and Libyana to send text messages every day reminding everyone of voter registration. In the past, we have had public information texts about much less important events. What would be the point of spending money on this in June, especially if large numbers do not register in May?
Indeed the possible increase in public information encouraging participation in the elections and the expected rise in political campaigning after voter registration closes may lead to unintended consequences. What if large numbers of uninformed Libyans arrive at polling stations in June ready to vote only to be told they cannot because the more important voter registration message did not reach them in the period 1-14 May? For these frustrated ‘would-be’ voters, this relatively unknown quantity called the democratic process may look even less appealing – and confirm their doubts that what ‘democracy’ says it means and what it actually means may not be the same.
Also it is pleasing to see that there are now official leaflets circulating encouraging people to vote. However, distribution of these seems to be falling on the shoulders of Libya’s nascent civil society groups who are taking responsibility for spreading the message that voter registration is important. While their efforts to distribute leaflets to shops, mosques and universities are enthusiastic and valiant – surely their role should be to support and not to have to take the lead because others have not.
Those responsible for managing this transition to democracy should be embarrassed and ashamed for leaving such an important responsibility to volunteer groups — who still have to bake cakes or run bazaars to raise money because official resources to support these genuine safeguards of democracy are still hard to find. If voter registration numbers improve significantly in the next week – it will be in large part due to the dedicated efforts of these groups and their commitment to building a new Libya rather than those who are being paid but for whatever reason not doing it that well.
While Libya’s resources are being spent — and time is waiting for no one — it should not be forgotten that the outcome of this voter registration process is crucial to the next stages of Libya’s democratic development. If sizeable numbers of Libyans fail to register in time because of a lack of understanding and awareness – and hence lose the right to vote – what will be the consequences for the elections in June?
With 3.4 million eligible voters, the High National Elections Commission is hoping to have 2 million or nearly 59 percent registered by 14 May. With proper advance planning. surely closer to 100 percent should have been the target, but given this is not going to happen, is nearly 59 percent reasonable? Given there is not much time left, what if registration numbers are much less – will the voter registration period be extended?
After voter registration closes, time is needed to cross-check the registers for any irregularities, so opportunities to extend registration will be limited. Given that the process in our registration centre of Tripoli was all handwritten, rather than as you would expect, input directly to a computer, some time may be needed to input handwritten registers into IT databases.
Given the months of forethought and planning that you would hope have gone into deciding how to run the voter registration process, the ability to extend the voter registration period if necessary should hopefully be one that can be realistically considered without needing to delay the election. The alternative is simple — that too many Libyans risk being denied their chance to vote and participate in building Libya’s democratic future because those entrusted to help manage this process have failed to communicate effectively with Libya’s 3.4 million potential voters about the registration and election process.
Yolanda Zaptia from Know Libya [email protected]