Libyan celebrate flag Tripoli_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Libya’s rebel fighters have still not clinched control over a few areas such as
Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the desert town of Sabha and Bani Walid,
but there is already talk of instituting democratic elections to choose a new
leadership to replace Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime.
Not long after
Libya’s National Transitional Council won control over Tripoli, Mustafa
Abdel-Jalil, the council’s chairman, called for a new constitution and elections
within 18 months. An internal UN document, meanwhile, envisions a two-stage
transition to democracy in Libya.
However, judging from numerous examples
in recent decades, the hasty implementation of “democratic” elections can be
wrought with danger and can often lead to strife, bloodshed and even civil war.
Academic studies have backed up the argument that rushing to the ballots is
often a bad idea.
Dawn Brancati of Washington University and Jack Snyder
of Columbia University have found, based on looking at elections that took place
around the world after civil wars since 1945, that the sooner a country went to
the polls the more likely it was to relapse into war. On average, Brancati and
Snyder found that waiting five years before holding the first election reduced
the chances of war by one-third.
And there is a local example of what
happens when the trappings of democracy are introduced before the prerequisites
for any democratic regime – administrative institutions, rule of law, political
and social stability and cultural norms – are put in place. In January 2006
Palestinians went to the polls and granted Hamas – a terrorist organization bent
on using violence, including suicide bombings, to destroy the Jewish state – a
landslide victory in the Palestinian elections for parliament.
led to the eventual split between the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and the
Fatah-controlled West Bank, and further complicated the already impossible
chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Elliot Abrams, at the
time a special assistant to president George W. Bush and the National Security
Council’s senior director for Near East and North African Affairs, rightly noted
in an interview with The Jerusalem Post
’s Herb Keinon in June that in retrospect
the US position on allowing those elections was mistaken. A hasty implementation
of “democracy” can mean that citizens’ first experience with democratic
elections might very well be their last.
Similarly, Libya is far from
ready for democratic elections. The country lacks a stable civil society
and is bereft of modern institutions, while its oil-based economy has fostered
Further exacerbating the situation is the
all-too-real danger of a new round of fighting. While the rebels won a decisive
victory over Gaddafi, thus negating the possibility that forces loyal to the old
regime will try to make a comeback, the balance of power among the victorious
factions still remains in flux.
And the country is still awash in
weapons, including stocks looted from government warehouses. Those arms are held
by rival factions and private citizens alike. And judging from precedents in
Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere, UN peacekeepers on the ground in Libya are unlikely
to play a significant role in keeping the peace.
Before elections take
place, Libya needs to be given the opportunity to build up impartial,
rule-based, and noncorrupt institutions, including courts, police, and other
governmental bureaucracies. Ideally, the country should also formulate a
constitution that protects human rights, freedom of the press and freedom of
Premature elections in Libya might give the false impression of
a speedy transition from dictatorship to democracy, but as the Palestinian
example has shown, hastily implemented democratic elections alone are no
guarantee that a more enlightened leadership will be voted in to
Democracies must be built from the bottom up, starting with
administrative institutions that can help ensure the rule of law and protect
basic human rights. Citizens must be educated to participate in civil rule and
appreciate the benefits of a true democracy: freedom, liberty and
Until Libya makes significant progress in these areas, it would
be not only unwise but downright dangerous to push ahead with “democratic”
elections within 18 months, as Libya’s National Transitional Council chairman is
calling to do.