TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) – Libyans are celebrating their first free national election in 60 years after defying violence to turn out for a poll widely seen as drawing a line under Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship.
Revelers lit the night sky over the capital, Tripoli, with fireworks, while in the eastern city of Benghazi, scene of anti-poll protests by those wanting more autonomy, people celebrated by firing rocket-propelled grenades in the direction of the sea.
Even in Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, which saw some of the worst fighting and damage in last year’s NATO-backed uprising to end his 42-year rule, there was relief that the vote on Saturday had gone smoothly.
“Allahu akbar (God is greatest), this is the freedom era – for the first time Sirte is free,” chanted a local woman as she celebrated with her family.
One man was shot dead by a security guard on Saturday as he tried to steal a ballot box in the eastern town of Ajdabiya. Another was killed in gunfire in a clash between protesters and backers of the poll in Benghazi, cradle of last year’s uprising.
But as voting closed around the country, officials said 98 percent of poll centers had opened at some point during the day for the ballot for a 200-member assembly that will name a prime minister and pave the way for parliamentary elections in 2013.
The election commission said after voting ended that 1.6 million of some 2.8 million registered voters had cast their ballots, a turnout of just under 60 percent.
Asked at a news conference when results would be published, commission chairman Nuri Al-Abbar said they would start to emerge on Monday, but added, “The first winner is the Libyan people.”
Candidates with Islamist agendas dominate the field of more than 3,700 hopefuls, suggesting Libya will be the next Arab Spring country – after Egypt and Tunisia – to see religious parties secure a grip on power.
The publication of results could yet be a potential flashpoint if rival factions dispute the outcome in a country still awash with arms from its civil war.
In Benghazi, protesters stormed a polling station just after voting started and set fire to hundreds of ballot slips in a public square in a bid to undermine the election’s credibility.
“There wasn’t enough security at the station to stop the attackers,” Nasser Zwela, 28, told Reuters. At least four voting centers were the scenes of tense standoffs between anti-poll protesters and armed locals seeking to prevent any disruption.
Supporters of the NATO-backed uprising that overthrew Gaddafi dismissed suggestions that the violence showed the election lacked legitimacy.
“After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today’s historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Obama pledged the United States would act as a partner even as he cautioned there would still be difficult challenges ahead.
“Now the hard work really begins to build an effective, transparent government that unifies the country and delivers for the Libyan people, and the United States stands ready to assist Libyans in their transition to a free democratic Libya at peace with your neighbors,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference in Tokyo on Sunday.
Yet many easterners remain angry the east has been allotted only 60 seats in the assembly compared with 102 for the west and have vowed to keep up their fight for greater national representation.
“We don’t have a law to control political parties, we don’t have a constitution yet. How can they consider this a legitimate congress?” said 25-year-old student Abdelwahab Al-Ghazali.
On Friday, armed groups shut off half of Libya’s oil exports to press demands for greater representation in the assembly. At least three major oil-exporting terminals were affected.
Analysts say it is hard to predict the political make-up of the new assembly, but parties and candidates professing an attachment to Islamic values dominate and very few are running on an exclusively secular ticket.
The Justice and Construction offshoot of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood is tipped to do well, as is al-Watan, the party of former CIA detainee and Islamist insurgent Abdel Hakim Belhadj.
(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli, Taha Zargoun in Sirte and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Ralph Gowling and Peter Cooney)
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