Party time for unsure Libyan voters

Libyans celebrate election day in Martyr's Square in Tripoli (7 Jul 2012)
Image caption Crowds gathered in Martyr's Square to celebrate their first free vote for decades

There is an idea, almost a mantra, about the elections that has been doing the rounds in Tripoli.

The Prime Minister, Abdel Rahim al-Keib, used it in an address to the nation.

Ian Martin, the head of the UN's mission in Libya, used it as he congratulated the electoral commission on their "great achievement" in organising the election. And so did my young taxi driver.

Before the revolution, so the mantra goes, you only saw pictures of one face all over the country, Muammar Gaddafi's.

But now, as 2,600 individuals and 400 political organisations stand in the election for the national assembly, you see posters everywhere showing the smiling or grimly serious faces of Libyans hoping to be elected.

'Bewildering' choice

The assembly's job is to choose the next prime minister, though it has become unclear what its role in drafting the constitution will be.

Image caption Handwritten voter lists told people which booth to use

And the variety of candidates is extraordinary: old and young, in smart national dress or in Western suits.

There are many women candidates, most in tight, colourful headscarves. A few women appear on posters without headscarves. Some of these have been defaced.

Issam, the taxi driver, barely looked voting age. He was struggling, almost anguished, with all the choice on offer.

"It's bewildering. There are so many people and we know only a few of them. Most of them are complete strangers with no record or plan or policy or political allegiance. How are we meant to choose? I keep hearing the word plurality, but...," and he trailed off, laughing.

"I want Mahmoud Jibril to be prime minister, I think I know what to expect from him. Sure, he prospered under the last regime but his role in the revolution was absolutely crucial too. I can vote for his party, but I'm not sure who to vote for as an individual.

"And, anyway, the Islamists will probably win the party vote, as they have everywhere else. Though frankly it's not clear to me who's an Islamist and who's a nationalist or whatever else they call themselves."

'Elections = bombings'

Exhausted by his rant, Issam reached for a cigarette and turned up the stereo playing some revolutionary rap.

He remembered simpler and more dangerous times. "This song was everywhere in the revolution, though if they caught you listening to it you were in big trouble," he says.

Then he sang along in perfect nasal rapper's English: "Your time is past, you cannot last. You're disgusting, we're revolting."

The election has been marred by violence and protests.

An election worker was shot in Benghazi and in Ajdabiya a building housing election materials was set alight.

Some polling stations have not opened and reports said at least one was sacked.

Much of the feeling against the election and the attacks has been in eastern Libya where the revolution began.

There, many feel marginalised and fear being under-represented in the national assembly.

In Dirna, also in the east, a poster that has been widely circulated on social media appeared threatening attacks. It read: "Elections = bombings."

About two-thirds of the way through election day, the electoral commission reported than just over 100 out of 1,500 polling stations had not opened for business on time.

Those that opened late will be voting late into the night.

At a polling station in Tripoli, in the residential area of Hay al-Andalus, voters milled about before joining the queue.

Some looked confused and a little lost. Handwritten voter lists told them which booth to go to, but it took many people a long time to find their names on the list.

Example ballot papers on the walls drew big crowds as people scrutinised the large sheets that they would face in the booths.

Once in the correct queue, voters seemed to relax, chat, shake hands, kiss and congratulate each other. Volunteers handed out water. One man joked that he was queuing for bread.

Another man, toothless and at least 80 years old, commented that he had never seen Libyans queue quietly like this.

Private moment

As they got to the front of the queue, the ordered process, the democratic ritual, took over.

Voters moved from station to station - voting cards and IDs were checked, voter registration numbers recorded, two ballot papers were folded, stamped and handed over.

Image caption Voters relaxed and shook hands and one joked that he was queuing for bread

In each section a line of three- or four-seated election observers looked on.

And then came that private moment in the booth.

The atmosphere here was hushed and solemn.

Many people took 10 minutes or more to make their choice and leave their mark.

When they finally emerged, most grinned broadly, but many were in tears.

The cry of Allahu Akbar - God is great - went up pretty much every time a voter left the booth clutching his papers to dip a finger in those little pots of ink and post their ballot in big transparent plastic boxes.

Marwah, a 40-year-old bank manager, seemed to know exactly what she wanted from the election.

She rattled off her list: "I want freedom, no corruption, women in the cabinet, a good economy and no guns on the street."

"We need a manager, someone who can run things properly, turn things around, and we need to do it our way."

When I ask how she voted, I'm told firmly to mind my own business, but she quickly softens.

"I look to Tunisia. The Islamists are working well there with other parties."

Then she heads off to join about five other women, smart young professionals. They hold hands and stride out into the street, trilling.

In Martyr's Square, crowds started gathering before midday to wave flags, sing and honk their car horns as the traffic came to a standstill.

A man stood on a block of concrete to shout again and again: "Good morning, Libya!"

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