Misurata's Blue Fingers: Indigenous Standards for Democratic Elections

Co-authored with Carmen Geha

A year after Misurata was freed from pro-Gaddafi forces, the local community did not take part in the festivities commemorating the Libyan revolution of February 17th, 2011. "The blood is still not dry, and hundreds form our families and friends are still missing," explains one lawyer and human rights activist. Misurata citizens decided to celebrate it by organizing the first local elections after 42 years and termed it "Ors Misurata" (Misurata wedding). In one of the polling stations, Ibn Ghalboun School, a framed martyrs poster of 15 young men and former teachers hung facing the ballot box; where many voters believed that "this is the fruit of the revolution and the way to make worth the revolutionaries lost souls."

The local elections on February 20th, offer a number of lessons learnt on initiating and managing a first-time electoral process. With the advent of international aid and support to Libya, it is becoming increasingly important to pause and reflect on the elections in Misurata. Far from the commotion of the National Transitional Council, and the conflict in several parts of the country, citizens in Misurata successfully managed a peaceful and transparent elections process; one of the most open and democratic of the many elections we have witnessed.

We visited Misurata with the Forum for Democratic Libya to continue the efforts of building the capacity of citizens and political actors on "Active Citizenship and Democratic Participation." It was the fourth city that the Forum visits to conduct these workshops and in Misurata over 150 youth, women, thuwar, political and civil society actors joined allowing us to better understand the dynamics and electoral process that was taking place.

The Governing Framework for Elections in Misurata

In the absence of an electoral law, an independent High Elections Commission was established and developed a "roadmap" for the elections. The roadmap is comprised of 12 main clauses that organize the electoral districts geographically, candidature procedures and policies, voter registry, contestation of results, security, and the issuing of a final report by the Commission. The 12 clauses are clearly explained and posted on the Commission's website www.lecm.ly which included a manual on voter's rights.

The entire electoral process was administered by the Commission through a collaborative effort with private sector companies, civil society groups, and local leaders in Misurata. The Commission was able to secure ballot boxes, print and distribute pre-printed ballots, and set-up curtains for voter secrecy. In just four weeks, the Higher Council had trained and deployed tens of representatives to educate voters and manage the polling stations and counting on E-Day.

The Voting Scene in Misurata

The choice of candidates resembled a strong communal activity that ensured local acceptance and legitimacy even prior to E-Day. Each candidate was required to obtain the endorsement of 20 locals who were not within four circles of his family. All candidates were reportedly, "of good reputation, liked by everyone, and honest people." For the candidates themselves, the focus was not on campaigning but on the freedom of running for the elections and the pride to be nominated by their communities. Misurata still does not have political parties or coalitions. Few of the candidates were known to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood but the remaining were simply local leaders who enjoyed a 'decent reputation.' "These elections are the most important first step towards democracy in Libya and I am honored to even have the chance to run," Tarek told us.

Voters in Libya were ecstatic on E-Day. They held their ink-stained fingers in front of the lenses of the international media and for the whole world to see. One woman had dipped her entire finger and proudly told us that she wishes to never wash it off. Voting was a source of pride and those that did not hold blue fingers out were ashamed. One activist told us his 104-year old aunt insisted on voting. "It does not matter to me who wins or what their agenda is, what matters today is that I get to go vote," explained Fadwa a founder of a local NGO working on women issues. During the revolution, Fadwa could not take part in the actual fighting, "but today I feel I am fighting back and that the blood of our martyrs will not go in vain."

A National Observation Operation

Article 10 of the "roadmap" invites observers from all over Libya to take part in monitoring the elections. A Network of Observers was created with representatives from major NGOs and towns across Libya and gathered on the night of February 19th to agree on instructions for the day. Two representatives from the Commission explained how voting should take place and what were the main points in the Roadmap that was created by. Observers asked general questions on the rules and procedures of entering polling stations and standards of monitoring. Most statements were informative related to the process with a genuine learning tone. Many statements were about thanking and supporting the Commission who has taken the lead in Misurata and across Libya. "We are here to learn from your experience and hopefully do the same for Benghazi," said one activist. "If Misurata can do it, then so can Benghazi and Tripoli," said a human rights activist in the room.

On E-Day the monitors coordinated closely with the Commission and deployed monitors inside and outside the polling stations. Inside the stations, monitors assisted in clarifying the procedures and regulations of voting while citizens peacefully complied. The major compliance issue was around ink, curtain, and folding the ballot papers with not a single meaningful security incident in a city where security is mainly taken in charge by informal groups of revolutionaries young men.

The Misurata Blue Fingers Standads for Democratic Elections

In Libya, the National Transitional Council has announced country-wide general assembly elections for the first time in Libya's history to take place across the country. After a dictatorship that robbed citizens from freedoms and civil liberties for more than four decades, the international community will undoubtedly want to lend 'a helping hand' to contribute to the openness and transparency of these elections as it often does in other parts of the world. International donors and multilateral organizations have already flocked to Misurata, Benghazi and Tripoli. A number of democracy and governance programs are already well underway to support the transition phase in Libya. What the elections experience in Misurata has helped prove is the following:

1. Conducting elections should be encouraged as a democratic choice: the less they are imposed and rushed, the more likely they are to be accepted and legitimized. Local community leaders in partnership with businessmen in Misurata opted to hold local elections. Although this council would only govern for eight months or so, pending the National elections allegedly this summer, citizens insisted on the exercise to learn and show a sign of commitment to freedom of choice. "Nobody forced these elections but we decided it was time to choose new representatives that can carry the values of the revolution," explains a man who owns one of the largest factories in Misurata.

2. Maintaining security in post-conflict elections should give a positive role for local armed forces: the more they contribute to stability, the more likely they will cooperate. In Misurata, the peace appeared surreal with local armed revolutionary men maintaining order and stability before and during E-Day. "It was our decision to cease any tensions and express ourselves at the polls," explained one fighters of the Kataeb in Misurata.
3. Social Accountability mechanisms can often be a stronger deterrent of violations than formal accountability mechanisms: the more cohesive a community is, the less likely the chances of distorting the elections process. Of the 200 citizens we met, we did not hear of any incident of bribery or violence. "We feel a strong sense of responsibility towards the families who lost their sons and daughters in the conflict, and by respecting the voting process, we are paying tribute," explained one woman voter. The local observers said that the only frequent violation was "few voters failing to show their ID cards, "this is a small community and people know each other by face and name, nevertheless we asked them to fix this and they have been very responsive," said one observer.
4. Local customs and traditions can prove to be a strong catalyst for consensus building: the more electoral assistance programs can utilize local culture and norms, the more likely it can succeed creating a participatory electoral process. In Misurata, local leadership that honored the spirit of the revolution and nominated representative candidates of the community was rewarded by high levels of citizen participation and low incidents of violations on E-Day.
5. Elections can be an enjoyable learning process: the process is more important than the outcome. We heard this repeatedly in Misurata as all stakeholders cherished the experience, and seemed less concerned of who won at the end.

International electoral assistance and standards have always been key ingredient in promoting "free, fair, and democratic elections." The lesson Misurata has sent out to the world is to start promoting "genuine, joyful, and peaceful elections." We will call these values the new "Misurata Blue Fingers Standards for Democratic Elections," from which the NTC in Libya, the Arab World, and the International Community can strongly build the new reform agenda on.

By Gilbert Doumit and Carmen Geha
Doumit and Geha are Founding Partners of Beyond Reform &Development; a consulting firm and social business working on policy research, public sector reform, civil society and political development in 12 Arab Countries. They served as General and Deputy Coordinators of the 2009 National Coalition for the Electoral Monitoring in Lebanon; the first technologically equipped observation mission that trained and deployed 3,000 observers managed through 30 offices across the country.