Libya remains in deep chaos. Various militias are competing for political and economic power, carrying out attacks and otherwise buffeting the fragile government. Work on a new Constitution has only recently started, well over a year later than envisioned in the political blueprint that was drawn up as the civil war ended in October 2011.
The assembly tasked with rewriting the Constitution was created just this past February, and then only incompletely. Some minority groups boycotted its election, anticipating that it would overlook their rights. Sporadic attacks by Islamist militants in the eastern part of the country prevented some Libyans from voting. Many more chose not to participate because they consider political institutions — including the General National Congress, the transitional parliament — to be ineffectual.
This is a shame because, despite severe security issues and other debilitating weaknesses, Libya these days has one unexpected strength: Most of its people agree on major issues that are often hopelessly divisive, like minority rights, Islam and federalism.
Polling by the University of Benghazi early last year suggested that a solid 55 percent of the population favored granting some form of recognition to languages other than Arabic, including the long-silenced ones spoken by the Amazigh and the Tebu, two minority groups. According to a study by the National Democratic Institute published last November, a majority of Libyans supported reserving seats for women and ethnic minorities in the constitutional assembly (and some seats were, in fact, set aside for those groups).
Other reports last year by the National Democratic Institute and the University of Benghazi indicated that an overwhelming majority of Libyans believed Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran, should be enshrined in the new Constitution as a source of legislation (though not the only one).
And while many Libyans, particularly in the east, support some degree of decentralization, they favor a centralized state over full-on federalism or any far-reaching devolution of power to the provinces.
Yet this popular consensus hasn’t translated into concrete political progress, mostly because the electoral rules Libya has adopted since the end of the war have created a deficit in the representativeness of its fledgling political institutions.
Results in both the recent election for the constitutional assembly and the 2012 parliamentary election were largely determined by a simple majority: Whoever garnered the most votes won, even if the tally fell short of an absolute majority. This system was adopted after the war to prevent certain political parties, particularly Islamist ones, from dominating the system. But mostly it has meant that many elected officials represent only a minority of voters.
Of the 120 seats allocated by a simple majority in the 2012 election for the 200-member Parliament, nearly one-third went to candidates who secured less than 10 percent of the vote. (The other 80 seats were allocated based on party lists via proportional representation.)
Matters have barely improved since. In the recent constitutional assembly election, only 10 of the 51 seats for which there are final results were won by candidates who garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. (Some of the assembly’s total 60 seats haven’t been filled because of those attacks by Islamists and the boycotts in February.) Nine seats were won with less than one quarter of the vote.
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The basic problem with this system is that it results in fractious bodies that frequently deadlock, even over issues much of the public seems to agree on. Amazigh leaders, for example, have not been able to reach a compromise with Arab representatives in the Congress over language rights, among other issues. This raises concerns about the parliamentary elections that will be held later this year: The plan for now is for all 200 representatives to be elected directly and via simple majorities.
The constitutional assembly, which is currently reconsidering Libya’s political structures, should explore alternative voting arrangements. One option is the instant-runoff rule. Voters rank all candidates rather than vote for their single favorite. If no candidate clears a predetermined threshold — say, 51 percent of the total vote — the candidate with the worst score is eliminated. Votes for that candidate are reallocated to the voters’ second choices, and so on until a winner emerges.
This system would yield representatives who are accountable to a much broader swath of the electorate than is the case under the current simple-majority rule.
Libya faces fiendishly difficult problems, but there is at least one tangible issue that could be fixed fairly easily. Reforming current electoral rules would close the gap between the people and their leaders, and make good on an enviable asset that is rare in such fragile countries: a popular consensus on major issues that transcends cleavages over smaller ones.
Dirk Vandewalle is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. Nicholas Jahr is a freelance researcher and reporter.