A Parliament Without a Country?

TOBRUK, Libya — Libya's new parliament held its first official meeting on Monday, Aug. 4, in the northeastern port city of Tobruk. The meeting comes as fighting between militias in Tripoli and Benghazi threatens to carry the country over the brink into complete anarchy. The conflict has only deepened Libya's chronic political polarization, making the task ahead of parliament -- legislating for a country whose transition to democracy is more uncertain than ever -- extremely challenging.

26 of the legislature's 188 members have refused to participate in the parliament's sessions, arguing that it is unconstitutional for the members to meet in Tobruk. While it's true that the country's Constitutional Declaration (the interim constitution) designates Benghazi as the official meeting place, it does allow parliament to meet elsewhere if necessary. Given the country's precarious security situation, and based on security reports from the ministry of the interior, the parliament's general secretariat, Abdullah al-Masry, decided that parliamentary sessions should be held in Tobruk until further notice, because the city is known for being militia-free.

The boycotting members' legal argument is, therefore, pretty weak -- but they have other motives for avoiding parliament. Ten of the members are from Misrata (a city whose militias have long backed Islamists) and the others are Islamist-leaning representatives from Gheryan, Benghazi, al-Khoms, and Tripoli. Ever since the devastating defeat of the Islamists in the parliamentary elections, these members have worked hard to prevent the parliament from convening, fearing a legislative backlash against the Islamists and their agenda should the members be allowed to meet. After weeks of fighting, the Islamists and their allies -- who include the powerful militia leaders in the city of Misrata -- are trying to make up for their political loss by exerting control militarily in Tripoli and Benghazi.

The new parliament, in other words, has its work cut out for it. It must be sensitive to the Islamists' agenda, given the chokehold their militias have on Tripoli and Benghazi, but it must also remain true to voters, who are more concerned with regaining stability and maintaining a balance between Libya's three historic regions. When I spoke to Amal Bayu, a parliament member representing Benghazi, she commented: "We must work as a team to achieve any progress we can and to put the transition back on track. We need to act fast to save Tripoli and Benghazi." Shortly after we spoke, news arrived that a rocket had hit the home of Bayu's brother in Benghazi, killing her nephew and leaving her brother seriously injured. Members of parliament understand the grave situation in Benghazi well -- and know that they are running out of time to fix it. (The photo above shows a youth standing next to a pool of blood near the site of a double suicide bombing in Benghazi.)

The first two days of Libya's parliamentary sessions showed where legislators hope to lead the country. The assembly's first move was to elect Agilah Saleh as the speaker of parliament, Emhmed Shaib as the first deputy speaker, and Ahmed Homa as the second deputy speaker. Each of these leaders comes from one of Libya's regions (Saleh from Cyrenaica, Shaib from Tripolitania, and Homa from Fezzan), which shows that the new parliament is trying to minimize divisions as much as possible by taking regional sensitivities into account.

Agila Saleh's election, however, also confirms the Islamists' fears of a legislative backlash. Agila Saleh is a strong opponent of the political isolation law, which bans people who worked under Qaddafi from participating in the new government. Islamists favored the law because it took many of their political opponents out of the running, giving them more unfettered access to power and making it easier for them to outmaneuver their opponents. During an initial meeting of eastern Libya's parliamentarians in late July, Saleh commented that under the new parliament, "unjust and unfair laws and legislations must be reversed and the rights of all must be protected and guaranteed." Islamists consider such rhetoric to be anti-Islamist and contrary to the revolutionary values they have set for post-revolution Libya.

The new lawmakers are also aware that Libya may fall apart completely if they don't act fast. On their second day, members of parliament approved a constitutional amendment to grant the parliament executive powers on a temporary basis. While some see this as a problematic move, it is an essential one. The previous parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), failed to determine whether the president would be elected or appointed, passing that highly controversial decision down to its successor body. The House of Representatives could take up to 45 days, as outlined in the Constitutional Declaration, to agree on a system and implement it. Benghazi and Tripoli cannot wait that long.

In general, many of the parliament members I spoke to feel that they need to avoid the GNC's exclusionary and polarizing legacy and work as a team, while also acting decisively and authoritatively on controversial issues to address the security situation. There are two ways this could play out.

First, parliament could adopt a neutral role in the continuing armed clashes, and attempt to mediate between Misrata and Zintan forces battling it out in Tripoli. The parliament could also embrace any moderate Islamist elements and bring them to the negotiations table in the city of Benghazi. By remaining neutral, the lawmakers might have the chance to broker a ceasefire and bring both sides to the negotiating table.

They won't be able to do this without the help and support of the international community. The current warring factions are unlikely to come to the negotiating table because they see the situation in zero-sum terms. If the countries of the West manage to combine diplomatic cajoling with threats of 2011-style military intervention and targeted airstrikes against terrorists, however, they may be able to convince Libya's the factions to consider a compromise. The new parliament must take advantage of the fact that the United Kingdom is currently chairing the U.N. Security Council. Britain has so far led efforts to mediate between the militias in Libya. Parliament should strengthen this connection and push the United Nations to take a more assertive role in the conflict.

If the international community fails to step up to the plate -- as recent events suggest is likely -- then the new parliament will be forced to chose a side in the conflict. This second scenario would lead the country into further destabilization and prolonged civil war, and destroy any chance that the parliament now has at establishing a stable, democratic political process.

The new parliament has an extremely small window of opportunity to put the Libya's transition back on track. Parliament needs to take a reconciliatory and inclusive approach, and avoid taking sides in the conflict. The international community, for its part, must work harder to support parliament by intervening in the conflict overtaking Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyans will be quick to turn their backs on the new parliament if it fails to deliver. Should that happen, parliament might not even have a state to govern.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.


Democracy Lab

The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

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