Jubilant Libyans chose a new parliament Saturday in their first nationwide vote in decades, but violence and protests in the restive east underscored the challenges ahead as the oil-rich North African nation struggles to restore stability after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Polls closed Saturday night and It will be a week before results are known.
One person was killed and two wounded in a gunbattle between security forces and anti-election protesters in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, according to the head of the election commission. Nouri al-Abari said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting commenced normally.
The vote capped a chaotic transition that has exposed major fault lines ranging from the east-west divide to efforts by Islamists to assert power.
Lines formed outside polling centers more than an hour before they opened in the capital Tripoli, with policemen and soldiers standing guard and searching voters and election workers before they entered.
The historic vote was tempered by boycott calls, the burning of ballots and attacks on polling centres in Libya’s restive east. It was the latest unrest in a chaotic transition thathas exposed major fault lines in the oil-rich North African nation — the east-west divide and efforts by Islamists to assert power.
Officials say 101 of more than 1,500 polling stations were unable to open.
“I have a strange but beautiful feeling today,” dentist Adam Thabet said as he waited his turn to cast a ballot. “We are free at last after years of fear. We knew this day would come, but we were afraid it would take a lot longer.”
The election for a 200-seat parliament, which will be tasked with forming a new government, is a key milestone after a bitter civil war that ended Gadhafi’s four-decade rule.
But the desert nation of 6 million people has experienced a rocky transition since Gadhafi was killed by rebel forces in his home city of Sirte in late October. Armed militias operate independently, refusing to be brought under the umbrella of a national army, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.
Growing resentment in the east — which was the cradle of last year’s uprising — over perceived domination by Tripoli in the west has threatened to tear the country apart.
Helicopter shot down
On Saturday, protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centres in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, said Ibrahim Fayed, a former rebel commander in the area.
On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of last year’s revolution, killing one election worker on board, according to Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.
The violence continued Saturday, with protesters, some armed, attacking polling centres in the early hours in the eastern cities of Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanouf, ransacking them and setting ballot papers ablaze.
Nouri al-Abar, the head of the election commission, told reporters in Tripoli that 94 per cent of polling centres nationwide were open but acknowledged that “security conditions” prevented ballots from reaching some areas and ballots were destroyed in other cases. He did not provide further details.
There are four major contenders in the Libyan race, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party and another Islamist coalition on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
The laws allocate the east less than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely settled south.
Flush with money, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns, and is hoping to become a political force in post-Gadhafi Libya like the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia.
Three other parties also are expected to perform well: Formerprime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s secular Alliance of National Forces, former jihadist and rebel commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj’s Al-Watan and the National Front party, one of Libya’s oldest political groups, known for organizing several failed assassination attempts against Gadhafi.
© The Associated Press, 2012