TRIPOLI (AFP) – Libyans cast ballots Saturday for a national assembly, the first election since Moamer Kadhafi’s ouster, after a string of acts of sabotage that have stoked tensions in the east of the country.
In Tripoli, polling stations opened on schedule with queues of voters eager to elect the General National Congress, which will be at the helm of the country for a transition period, an AFP journalist said.
“Words cannot capture my joy, this is a historic day,” said Fawziya Omran, 40, one of the first women in line at the Ali Abdullah Warith school in the heart of the capital.
“I’ve made my choice. I hope it is the right choice and that the candidate will not disappoint us,” she told AFP.
Voters in the capital turned up draped in black, red and green flags — the colours of the revolution that toppled Kadhafi last year — while mosques blasted chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
In the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of the uprising and heartland of elements threatening to derail the vote, polling stations also opened on time, another correspondent said.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, who heads a team of 21 European Union observers, said the vote marks a major milestone in the transition to democracy after 42-years of dictatorship.
“We believe that to have this election in Libya less than one year after the fall of Tripoli is an important achievement,” Lambsdorff told AFP.
The EU team had been reinforced in Benghazi following disruptions, with one female observer added to the mix to help monitor the women sections of polling stations.
“We only hope that the situation remains peaceful across the country. The majority of Libyans want to vote. Eighty percent want to vote,” he added.
The vote may be a very different experience for residents of Tripoli, which has enjoyed a spell of calm than for those of cities in eastern Libya which have been rocked by acts of sabotage and threats to disrupt the vote.
On Friday, gunfire struck a helicopter in eastern Libya killing an election worker.
– ‘Poll imperilled in east’ –
Ian Martin, head of the UN mission to Libya, urged “all voters to exercise their hard-earned democratic right to elect their National Congress representatives” while condemning the deadly attack.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned the electoral process in Libya is “imperilled by armed protesters who… are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country.”
Also in the run-up to the polls, five oil facilities have been forced cease production by gunmen who want greater representation for the east in the incoming 200-member congress.
Armed protesters on Sunday last week ransacked the office of the electoral commission in Benghazi. Arsonists in nearby Ajdabiya later set fire to a depot with polling material.
The make-up of the congress has been a matter of heated debate, with political factions such as the federalist movement calling for more seats.
The outgoing National Transitional Council (NTC) says seats were distributed according to demographic considerations, with 100 going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south.
But factions in the east want an equal split of seats and have threatened to sabotage the vote if this demand is not met.
The authorities dismiss such groups as a disruptive minority, pointing out that more than 2.7 million people, or about 80 percent of the eligible electorate, have registered to take part in the poll.
Libya has not seen elections since the era of late monarch King Idris, whom Kadhafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969.
Parties were banned as an act of treason during Kadhafi’s iron-fisted rule. Now there are 142 parties fielding candidates.
A total of 80 seats are reserved for party candidates while 120 seats are open to individual candidates. Altogether, 3,707 candidates are running in 72 districts across the country.
From the parties, the coalition of ex-war time prime minister Mahmud Jibril is seen as a key contender among liberals, facing stiff competition from two Islamist parties — Justice and Development and Al-Wattan.
The incoming congress will have legislative powers and appoint an interim government. But it no longer has the right to appoint a constituent authority, under a last-minute amendment issued by the NTC.
The winds of the Arab Spring that ushered Islamists into power in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt may well bring the same result on Saturday in the first national election since Kadhafi was toppled.
A February 2011 uprising ended more than four decades of the dictator who was killed while on the run last October.