Liberals claim lead in Libyan elections

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Fireworks explode in the sky as people celebrate after polling stations closed during national election in Benghazi (Photo:Reuters – Esam Al-Fetori)

Published Sunday, July 8, 2012

Liberals claimed an early lead on Sunday in counting of votes across the country after Libya's first free elections following the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

"Early reports show that the coalition is leading the polls in the majority of constituencies," the secretary general of the National Forces Alliance, Faisal Krekshi, said.

The alliance of liberal forces is headed by Mahmud Jibril who played a prominent role as rebel prime minister during the popular revolt that toppled Gaddafi last year.

The leader of one of Libya's main Islamist parties acknowledged that the rival coalition had the advantage in the country's two largest cities.

"The National Forces Alliance achieved good results in some large cities except Misrata. They have a net lead in Tripoli and in Benghazi," said Mohammed Sawan, who heads the Justice and Construction party.

"But it is a tight race for us in the south," added Sawan, a former political prisoner and member of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, which launched the party.

The elections, the first in decades, were hailed as a democratic milestone despite protests disrupting some polling in the restive east.

Turnout was put at 60 percent by the country's Electoral Commission, with preliminary results due on Monday or Tuesday.

In the capital Tripoli on Saturday, long queues formed of people keen to elect the General National Congress, which will steer Libya through a transition period.

"Words cannot capture my joy, this is a historic day," said Fawziya Omran, 40, voting in a school in the heart of Tripoli.

Some voters sported black, red and green flags – the colors of the revolution that toppled Gaddafi last year.

Joy was also palpable in the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of the revolt.

"I feel like my life has been wasted so far, but now my children will have a better life," said Hueida Abdul Sheikh, a 47-year-old mother of three.

But others parts of the east were less tranquil, with gunmen killing one person and wounded two others near a polling station in the eastern city of Ajdabiya.

US President Barack Obama led the upbeat reaction from the West, calling the elections "another milestone" in Libya's transition to democracy.

"After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, (the) historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people," the US president added in a written statement.

Gaddafi's downfall was brought about by a NATO bombing campaign led by the US, France the UK.

Interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil was jubilant as he voted in his hometown of Al-Bayda, also in the east.

Protesters demanding greater representation in the 200-member congress disrupted voting elsewhere in the region, however.

Electoral commission chief Nuri al-Abar said that "despite a day of crisis management" only 24 out of 1,554 polling stations had not been able to open their doors due to acts of sabotage mostly in the east.

In Benghazi after the official end of polling the streets filled with joyous crowds and cars with blaring horns, as people fired celebratory gunshots into the air and let off fireworks, waved flags and flashed "V for victory" signs.

There were similar scenes in the capital.

Protesters unhappy over the east's share of seats in the new assembly had earlier targeted polling centres and also forced oil facilities to shut down ahead of the election.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, who heads a team of 21 European Union observers, said large numbers had come out to vote "peacefully and free of fear and intimidation, despite some disturbances in the east and some tensions in the south," he told AFP.

"The election, however, is far from over," he cautioned. "Counting, tallying and the publication of results are the other important steps in this electoral process."

The make-up of the congress being elected has been a matter of heated debate, with factions such as the federalist movement calling for more seats.

The outgoing National Transitional Council (NTC) says seats were distributed according to demographics, with 100 going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south.

But factions in the east, which was marginalized under Gaddafi, want an equal split and had threatened to sabotage the vote if their demand was not met.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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