While watching Al Jazeera today, I became annoyed that so many experts and analysts kept referring to this mythical Libyan election that will somehow take place in 8-9 months. I don’t expect an election administration expert on every TV panel but I wish somebody asked if this was a realistic timetable (spoiler: it’s not). Libya isn’t the first post-conflict country to deal with the difficult decision of an election timetable. The optimal time to hold a first election is different from country to country, and the tradeoffs are important. The earlier the election, the harder it is to run a good one. The longer you wait, the less legitimacy the interim government will have. Libya will probably have the benefit of massive amounts of foreign funding and expertise, but that still doesn’t guarantee a well run election. One only has to look at Kosovo to see that unlimited resources, although helpful, are far from sufficient for avoiding major pitfalls in an election.
Another troubling thing I’ve heard on more than one occasion is the notion that institution building in Libya will be like working on a “blank slate.” I’ve also heard this used to describe South Sudan and in both cases, they aren’t completely true. When it comes to governance, there is not such thing as a black slate. Governing has been taking place in some way. There may be a lack of formal democratic institutions, but that doesn’t mean people weren’t doing things before we got there. It’s true that in terms of elections and governing institutions, Libya is much more of a blank state than most countries, but that doesn’t mean informal methods of governance, even at the local level, won’t influence the institutions that are eventually developed.