The Libyan Rebels and Electoral Democracy

Why Rushing to the Polls Could Reignite Civil War

Courtesy Reuters

With Libya still in the hands of armed regional and tribal factions -- each challenging the other's pretensions to political authority -- it seems wishful to believe that the country will enjoy a smooth and quick transition to stable democracy. Even so, Libya's National Transitional Council and the United Nations are already planning for Libya's first elections.

Soon after the NTC won control of 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. The first would be a loosely specified period of time during which "political preconditions" for elections -- establishing public security, building public trust in the impartiality of police, and electing a Provisional National Council within six to nine months to write a constitution -- would be satisfied. That would be followed by a six-month period during which the NTC would set up Libya's new electoral machinery, with help from the United Nations.

The UN memo is right to stress the need for preconditions. Our research on all first elections after civil wars since 1945 underscores the dangers of hasty voting. We found that the sooner a country went to the polls the more likely it was to relapse into war. On average, waiting five years before holding the first election reduced the chance of war by one-third.

This makes sense. After civil wars, the rule of law is weak. In addition, those contending for power are usually the same individuals who were recently fighting. The factions that form around them are generally based on traditional social groupings, such as tribes, ethnic groups, and religious sects. In such a situation, candidates resort to illiberal populist appeals, especially ones based on exclusive group identity. Their supporters often refuse to accept election results peacefully, which is especially dangerous if the factions are not yet disarmed and demobilized.

For democracy to take hold, a country needs parties and civic organizations that bridge traditional divides.

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