Libyans rush for taste of new-found democracy
More than a million Libyans have registered to vote in landmark elections due to be held next month.
TRIPOLI - More than a million Libyans have registered to vote in landmark elections due to be held next month in a show of enthusiasm for democracy after decades of dictatorship under Moamer Gaddhafi.
Hundreds of candidates have thrown their hats into the ring for the vote for an assembly to draw up a first post-Kadhafi constitution for the oil-rich North African nation.
Registration got off to a slow and tentative start in the face of the persistent insecurity still gripping parts of the country more than six months after the interim government proclaimed liberation.
But the pace has accelerated sharply as deadlines loom on Monday for voters and Tuesday for candidates.
As of Thursday, Libya's high electoral commission said 1,167,999 people had signed up to cast a ballot.
Out of a population of six million, there are an estimated 3.4 million eligible voters, according to a rough estimate based on a 2006 census.
"Finally, we have freedom and a chance to choose the most competent people to lead us," said Suad Mohammed, 37, as she added her name to the electoral register.
She considered it a duty to "the revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives to make such a day possible."
Libya is to elect a constituent assembly in June in line with a declaration by the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) after Gaddhafi's ouster, although an exact date yet to be fixed.
For most, voting will be a new experience.
Only a few, like Omar Bashir Afiya, are old enough to remember taking part in parliamentary elections under the Western-backed monarchy which Gadhafi overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1969.
"History will judge who leads us next but let's hope for the best," said Afiya, leaning on his son as he registered.
Would-be voters need to show their identity cards and family booklets at the makeshift registration centres set up in schools around the country.
Most have huge smiles on their faces as they leave armed with the tiny orange and white card that documents their right to vote.
"I am simply overjoyed," Mariam Abdullah told AFP outside one centre in Tripoli. "I now feel like a real citizen, with rights, an opinion, a voice and a vote."
Arafat Dukali, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer, said that family and tribal networks were key in spreading awareness about what is expected of citizens in the next political chapter.
"People are helping each other understand the process," he said.
The NTC has pledged to hold the election to the 200-seat constituent assembly on schedule, despite concerns expressed by some diplomats that the vote may have to be delayed.
A total of 120 seats are reserved for independents, with the rest open to contest by political associations.
More than 50 parties and at least 1,000 independents have registered so far.
Candidates still have to be approved by the Integrity and Patriotism Commission which is charged with barring from public office anyone it deems to have "glorified" the old regime or "stood against the February 17 revolution" that overthrew it.
United Nations special envoy to Libya, Ian Martin, acknowledged that the authorities had set a "tight timetable" for the vote and that "security concerns" remained, but said he still considered an early vote wise.
"There is a strong desire to have elected authorities in place," he said, pointing to local elections in cities like Misrata and Zuwarah.
Martin said that voter registration was much lower among women in the conservative Muslim nation, at just 36 percent of those who had put their names down so far.
He said that the tight timetable was likely to make the registration of candidates in particular "very challenging" as they would have very limited time to make their names and positions known.
But that doesn't daunt Washiqa al-Asheq who has been racing against the clock to submit the necessary papers for her recently formed Umma Party to field candidates.
"We have waited all of our lives to see our country and our people live these days," she said.