TRIPOLI, Libya — Overjoyed Libyans voted in their first election in decades Saturday, picking a parliament that will name the nation’s government and write a constitution, nearly a year after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his self-created state met their demise.
In a nation that a year ago feared that Gadhafi would survive the uprising against him, every part of the election was celebrated as an achievement. Libyans cheered as they parked in front of the polling station, happily looked up which classroom they were to vote in and ululated as they stood in line. Some welled up with tears as they stood behind cardboard booths, cast their vote and dropped their ballots into the plastic bin.
In one polling station in the western city of Zawiyah, a television camera was stationed in a polling station and showed the elections on a day-long live stream. And throughout the nation, voters were met with candy and water from jubilant citizens.
Zawiyah, a city just west of the capital where rebels fiercely fought Gadhafi forces in the early days of the revolution, the scars of the past and the promise of the election were everywhere. There is not a storefront that does not have shelling marks. Many voters there were onetime fighters.
“We are deciding our destiny,” said Talal bin Jassim, 27, an engineer who picked up a weapon and fought in Tripoli and Zawiyah, where he was voting. “This is what we fought for.”
But the scorching summer day was punctured with some turmoil. In the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolution began in February 2011, some voters had to create a human shield around the polling station as opponents who called the process premature and unfair threatened to shut down the vote. Some of the polling stations could not open. But Libyan officials said that 94 percent of the 6,629 stations nationwide operated without incident.
And in the eastern cities of Ajdabiya and Brega, both once the front lines of the war against the Gadhafi regime, polls opened late.
But the instruments that could have destroyed the process – a lacking army, the nation’s east-west divide, militiamen that control large swaths of the country and violent opponents of the election – did not. Indeed, throughout the nation, mosques played “Allah Akhbar,” or “God is Great,” in a loop for hours in celebration.
Libyan election officials said they would announce the final vote tally Wednesday.
Although results were still being tabulated in a nation that had no experience with exit polling, it appeared that a slate led by Mahmoud Jibril, a former foreign minister and first person to head of Transitional National Council -- the self-appointed group that has governed since the fall of Gadhafi -- was the frontrunner, according to the Libyan Herald, an independent newspaper.
If that holds, it would be a win for those who want a liberal, more secular-led Libya. Behind him was the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, whose financing and organization were readily apparent. Throughout the capital, its signs dominated a city landscape covered in campaign posters.
Jibril “is well known internationally. He is educated and he is interested in youth,” Masoud Zeit, 32, an engineer in Tripoli explained just after voting for his slate.
But Libyans themselves conceded they knew little about the candidates they were choosing in the complex balloting system. Each of the nation’s 73 districts had at least one individual representative, at least one party candidate one or both. Those with both kinds of representation voted on two ballots, in some cases choosing an individual candidate from more than 100 names.
Indeed, there were 3,700 candidates nationwide. In a nation of 2.8 million eligible voters, that often meant that voters picked someone they knew – a neighbor, a fellow tribesman, a business associate or a friend – not a politically ally.
Whoever is elected to the 200-member National Congress must name a prime minister within 30 days. The prime minister must then name a cabinet to be approved by the congress. And 60 members of that congress will be elected to draft a constitution that will go before a national referendum.
It is the first semblance of democratic governance in a nation that never experienced politics under Gadhafi. During his 42-year rule, there was only his Green Party, his rules and his penalties for violating them.
“The test (for the new parliament) begins with implementing this roadmap,” said Sami Zapita, managing editor of the Libya Herald. “For the first time, the government will have a mandate. Gadhafi never had that. And the Transitional National Council had to step gingerly because they didn’t have this mandate.”
Not all parts of the country embraced the process. In parts of Bani Walid for example, Gadhafi’s green flag still flies. And in the southern city of Kufra, officials had asked, unsuccessfully, to delay the election. The campaign posters that wallpapered the rest of the country were noticeably absent.
Regardless, Zapita said, Saturday was a celebratory moment. “This is about building blocs. Our democracy is a baby. Before we can walk, we have to learn to crawl.”