Libyans Vote, But Power Struggle Has Just Begun

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Libyans voted Saturday in their first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections. Candidates from more than 140 parties are contesting the vote. Guest host David Greene talks with Fred Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for more on how the transition to democracy is already running into trouble.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Yesterday, for the first time since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, Libyans cast votes to elect their government. These were parliamentary elections. And while Libyans celebrated the landmark event in the street, it is clear the transition to democracy is running into trouble.

For more, we're joined by Fred Wehrey in the BBC Studios in London. He's a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he was in Libya during the run-up to the elections.

Welcome to the program.

FRED WEHREY: Thanks, good to be here.

GREENE: So, tell us what the country seemed like as we approach the selection first. What were the conflicts that we were seeing in Libya?

WEHREY: You know, I would describe the mood as guardedly optimistic. The main issue really was the disagreement between the east and the west, and specifically this feeling in the east that they were not being represented by these elections, that the historic marginalization of the east - that Gadhafi had implemented - that this would continue. One activist told me that it was simply old wine in new bottles.

So, as a result of this, you had in the run-up to the election calls for boycott in the east, protests, violence, the closure of oil refineries and, as we saw on Election Day, some deadly acts of violence.

GREENE: Help us understand how this is possible. I think the image that many of us have from Libya was the ouster of Gadhafi being a victory for the east, for Benghazi, where the revolution was sort of born. Why do they feel they're not getting the power that they expected?

WEHREY: Well, that's just the crux of it. I mean they're disappointed that the transitional authority, the NCC, has really moved a lot of the political power to the west. Specifically, they point to the allocation of parliamentary seats, where the west has more parliamentary seats. And so, there's this move in the east of simply that these elections are illegitimate and people should not participate.

GREENE: And I guess, you know, we're still waiting for results from these elections. But I wonder, you know, is there a sense of who the front-runner parties are, and if we're seeing the same sort of secular Islamist divide that really emerged in Egypt?

WEHREY: You really don't see that divide. Libya is really a different political animal. The line between Islamist and secularist is really blurred. So what you're seeing is a very even, close race between the National Forces Alliance, a more nationalist secular party led by Mahmoud Jibril, the former executive chairman of the NTC, and a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate party, the Justice and Construction Party.

GREENE: And, as we go forward, I mean, a lot of the conflict we've been talking about - a helicopter shot down, boycotts, protests in the streets - does this all threaten to undermine this country as it goes forward? Or is this kind of the turbulence that we expect?

WEHREY: It's a bumpy, turbulence and road. But my sense here - and I really want to emphasize this - was the tremendous euphoria and can-do spirit of the Libyans. I mean, they realized that they do not want to jeopardize the enormous sacrifices that their martyrs made. You have to remember also that in the larger frame of things, this election was successful.

Polling went ahead and about 94 to 98 percent of the polling stations. There was high voter turnout. By and large this has been a historic, momentous occasion.

GREENE: We've been talking about the historic parliamentary election in Libya with Fred Wehrey. He's a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he joined us from the BBC Studios in London.

Thanks so much.

WEHREY: Thank you, appreciate it.

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