Shukri Baker’s notion of politics, like most Libyans’, was once limited to the four-decade push to get rid of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, in Baker’s case as an underground organizer during last year’s uprising that led to Gadhafi’s fall.
On Saturday, Baker will experience an overdose of democracy during Libya’s first election in more than 50 years. He is one of 158 candidates for three seats in a district of 300,000 people. Baker is one of 3,700 candidates vying for 200 parliamentary seats.
His job for the last month as a candidate has not been to sell his views or his vision for Libya, but to stand out in the crowd.
With so many candidates running in such a short election cycle, a vote slated to redefine Libyan politics in the post-Gadhafi era has very little to do with political vision. The winning candidates will largely consist of those with the most posters, the largest tribes, the best social network or the most number of friends, Baker and other parliamentary candidates said.
“How are people supposed to choose a candidate if they only see his picture on campaign ads? People don’t know what they are voting for,” explained Abdel Nasser al Sakalany, 57, an independent candidate in Tripoli’s Anzara district. Regardless, “you have to go through this period because we have no alternative.”
Baker’s is the 116th name on the ballot from which 132,000 registered voters will choose in Tripoli’s Hay al Landalus district.
“Everyone thought running for an election would be easy. We didn’t know. So people ran for Parliament. But they didn’t think about funding or what their vision should be,” Baker said. “Now winning is about relationships.”
Where most nations of the Arab Spring had some sense of politics, Gadhafi had isolated Libya from any political evolution. During Gadhafi’s tenure, activists were arrested or killed as only one party – his Green Party— could exist.
Saturday’s election is Libya’s attempt to create a political structure. The Parliament will choose the next prime minster and Cabinet. And 60 members will be elected to write a constitution to replace the Green Book, a diatribe of Gadhafi edicts that guided the country since 1969.
Yet those who make up the legislative body could win by a few hundred votes.
Libya’s nascent government, formed just over a year ago, has focused largely on addressing the concerns in cities that led to the uprising, which began in February 2011 and ended with Gadhafi’s death last August.
In Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the heart of the uprising, there is talk of splitting the country up and outrage over the number of seats it will have in the new Parliament – 26, to Tripoli’s 30. There have been outbreaks of violence against election centers around Benghazi, raising concerns about how orderly Saturday’s election there will be.
Indeed, on Friday, someone reportedly shot at an election helicopter in Benghazi. A day earlier, someone set fire to an elections office in the nearby city of Ajdabiya.
The legislature is structured in a complex way that appears to limit any one party from dominating the election. In local district council elections held throughout the country during the spring, the Muslim Brotherhood garnered 51 percent of the votes. For the Parliament, there are 73 districts each represented by individual candidates, party candidates or both. In those districts, voters will receive two ballots. Baker’s district consists of three individual candidates and three party candidates.
Baker, 37, is a mechanical engineer by trade, and his campaign staff of 45 is largely fellow engineers. They work out of a friend’s office. Most of their rival candidates don’t have a slogan; Baker’s is: “We chose Libya. Who will you choose?”
He found 80 friends to put his campaign poster on their cars’ back windows. Facebook and Twitter are the best measure they have of their reach. Baker has 3,000 “likes” on his Facebook page, a promising sign, according to his campaign.
Unlike most candidates, Baker raised enough money through friends to air radio ads, which include a campaign song written for him. Less fortunate candidates used existing songs or simply limited their campaigns to posters that now litter the capital.
Gadhafi looms over the campaign. Some candidates are fighting for votes by campaigning as his biggest foe. Al Sakalany, for example, has let voters know he was arrested twice under Gadhafi, once for talking about killing him and the other time for plotting it.
Baker rejects such campaigning, saying it is time to focus on the future. And however haphazard and hurried the process has been, the need for a new system is hard to miss. Each city has created its own system of governance, armed forces and definition of a successful post-Gadhafi Libya.
And in the capital, the massive compound that once housed Gadhafi is now hundreds of feet of rubble. An array of campaign posters now decorate what were the walls of the compound.
Special correspondent Bahaa Aturban contributed from Tripoli.