It's been nearly half a century since the people of Libya were consulted about who should lead them. So long that less than 5% of Libyans have any memory of voting in an election before Moammar Kadafi seized power in 1969 and banned politics as bourgeois and un-Islamic.
Little wonder, with the marketplace of ideas shut down through two generations, that the eight months since Kadafi's overthrow and execution have been fraught with tribal clashes, separatist movements and power struggles leading up to Saturday's election for a transitional legislature.
But what looks on the surface to be chaos and contention won't necessarily thwart Libya's first step toward defining what kind of state will emerge from the rubble of Kadafi's erratic 42-year rule. Middle East experts tracking the shock waves of the "Arab Spring" across the region see keen interest among Libyans in defining their own future.
Saturday's vote for a 200-seat General National Congress has drawn more than 3,700 candidates and 142 political parties, according to the High National Election Commission. More than 80% of eligible voters have registered, campaigning has been brisk, and moderation has been the dominant message of most candidates.
Election rules prohibit those who served Kadafi from running for the legislature, as well as those in the self-appointed Transitional National Council, which emerged during last year's uprising and has run the country since Kadafi's demise. In what analysts see as a promising display of responsibility to ensure a fair election, the commission postponed the vote from June 19 to thoroughly vet each of the contenders.
Preparations haven't been to everyone's liking. Former rebel fighters, angered by the lower number of seats accorded the eastern region, from which the revolution sprang, shut down three oil refineries late Thursday to demand, in vain, that the election be cancelled. Militant Islamists have attacked Western diplomatic convoys and consulates. Tribal clashes have broken out over land disputes, and fear has soared that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda will take advantage of the unrest to gain Libyan footholds.
Insecurity notwithstanding, hundreds of election observers from the European Union and the Atlanta-based Carter Center are expected to keep an eye out for trouble throughout the day.
"The Carter Center welcomes the opportunity to observe these historic elections, the first in Libya in almost 50 years," said the center's founder, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, expressing hope for "a peaceful, transparent, and credible electoral process."
In light of the security challenges -- a few polling places have been ransacked or blocked by militias -- the Carter Center's mission will be limited and its postmortem "will not offer a comprehensive assessment of the electoral process," just advice to the commission for the next voting, the center said in a statement.
Bringing modern governance to Libya is going to be a phased process, say scholars of democratic transitions.
"No one should be surprised by the tumult we’ve seen generally in the Arab world in the wake of regime changes. We should expect to see a lot of differences in post-conflict countries," said Laurel Miller, a senior policy analyst with Rand Corp. who is nearing completion of a study of democratic transitions around the world over the past four decades.
Libya is a particularly challenging case because of the complete dearth of institutions, she said. Once the parliament is seated, it must choose a prime minister and cabinet, then organize a vote to select the drafters of a constitution.
"They're not just reforming or rewriting a constitution. For Libyans, it's really a question of creating a fundamental concept of the state from scratch," Miller said.
Campaigns have been "intensely local," noted Kori Schake, a former National Security Council official now at Stanford's Hoover Institution. While she expects Saturday's vote to do little to organize the scattered political interests into a cohesive legislature, she sees surprising moderation and inclusiveness among the rival aspirants to political power.
"I see it as a positive sign that all the candidates, for the most part, sound alike. You've got Muslims talking about tolerance and women's rights and you've got secular candidates talking about the importance of religion in private life and the need for accountable government," she said.
Libyans who left their homeland during Kadafi's reign have returned to help with the transition, and foreign democracy-building advocates and think tanks have been consulting with activists seeking roles in guiding their countries through the disorder, Schake said, recalling a recent Brookings Institution forum in Qatar where Arab Spring rebels from across the region gathered to brainstorm.
"They’re the people who have to live with the consequences" of the revolutions, said Schake, who urges a limited role for foreign governments at these early junctures. "One of the lessons that we learn over and over again in nation-building is the more local control and ownership there is of the activity, the likelier it is to be of long standing."
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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: In Tripoli on Friday, a Libyan scout leader explains the concept of elections on the eve of the nation's first free vote in nearly half a century. Credit: James Lawler Duggan / McClatchy Tribune