TRIPOLI: Explosions rocked five polling stations in eastern Libya Thursday as voters began electing a body to draft a new constitution, another step in the OPEC producer’s rocky transition since Moammar Gadhafi fell in 2011.
Nobody was wounded in the dawn bomb attacks in the restive town of Derna, residents said, but the incident highlighted the volatile situation in the North African country.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government is struggling to assert its authority over militias which helped topple Gadhafi but kept their weapons and have become major political players.
Two of the most powerful militias threatened Tuesday to dissolve the General National Congress assembly which they accuse of paralyzing the country by endless infighting.
Libya desperately needs a viable government and system of rule so that it can focus on reconstruction and on healing the divisions exposed by the NATO-backed campaign against Gadhafi.
Polling stations opened across most of Libya, although they stayed closed in Derna after suspected Islamists forced one voting center to shut by firing shots into the air and shouting “voting is haram [forbidden],” an election official said.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks but residents said the bombers had scrawled “There is no constitution but Islamic law” on a wall near the scene of one blast, suggesting radical Islamists were responsible.
Security conditions meant some polling stations in two other towns also failed to open.
In Benghazi, gunmen threw a bag full of explosives into a polling station but the devices did not go off, a security source said.
In the capital, a journalist from the privately owned Al-Assema television, known for its anti-Islamist editorial stance, was seriously wounded in a bomb attack on a staff house, a manager at the channel told AFP.
Early voting appeared sluggish in the capital, Tripoli, and the main eastern city of Benghazi, where soldiers guarded polling stations.
In the first four hours, turnout had reached just 18 percent, election organizers said.
“I am on the electoral register but I am not going to vote, just because I don’t know who to vote for,” said Amal, a 21-year-old travel agent.
Only a third of Libya’s 3.4 million eligible voters bothered to register compared to more than 2.7 million 19 months ago – and that only after several extensions to the deadline.
U.N. envoy Tarek Mitri urged Libyans to “make your voice heard and contribute to your new state’s constitution. … All of us are aware that in a transition, a second election may not motivate people and mobilize energies in the same way the first elections did.
“But we call on Libyans not to underestimate the importance of these elections.”
Khairi Chokwara, 52, said he could not understand his compatriots’ lack of interest in going to the polls, as he proudly showed off the indelible ink on his finger that showed he had voted.
“For me, these elections are the most important ones because it’s through the new constitution that we will chart our country’s future.”
The Interior Ministry said it deployed more than 40,000 police to secure the nation’s 1,500 polling stations, while the Defense Ministry said it had posted 11,000 troops.
The 60-strong constitutional committee, drawn equally from Libya’s three regions of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south, will have 120 days to draft the charter.
The new charter is to cover key issues such as Libya’s system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Shariah law.
Libya plans to go ahead with elections to a new transitional authority rather than wait for the constitution to be finalized.
In principle, all of the 692 hopefuls in Thursday’s poll stood as individuals, as political parties were barred from fielding candidates.
The candidates included 73 women, and the assembly will have at least six seats reserved for women.
Another six seats are reserved for members of Libya’s three main ethnic minority groups – the Berbers, Toubous and Tuareg.
But the two Berber seats will remain vacant as the main Berber organizations called a boycott to protest the failure of the interim authorities to guarantee the community – which played a major role in the 2011 uprising – a bigger say in drawing up the new charter.
Attempts to write a constitution have been delayed by political infighting in the GNC, elected in July 2012 for an 18-month term in Libya’s first free poll in nearly 50 years.
Gadhafi ostensibly ruled Libya under a bizarre set of laws prescribed in his Green Book. In practice he and his family ran a totalitarian state where no political opposition was tolerated and rival tribes were paid off or played off against each other.