Residents of the battle-scarred town of Misrata voted on Monday to elect their local council, in Libya’s first poll in more than 40 years and held four months after the killing of Moamer Kadhafi.
“This is an historic event. We hope these elections will be an example” for the rest of Libya, the president of the port city’s electoral commission, Mohammed Balrouin, told AFP.
He said it was “a dress rehearsal for the upcoming vote” to be held nationwide in June to elect a constituent assembly.
Misrata residents were electing 28 council members from a field of 242 candidates. Some 101,486 people were registered to cast their ballots, from 156,000 eligible voters in a city with a population of 281,000, Balrouin said.
By midday, he put the turnout at between 30 and 60 percent. “Our goal was to have a turnout of more than 30 percent. I believe we’re almost there,” he said.
Balrouin also said that the participation of women voters had “exceeded expectations.”
Monday had been declared a public holiday in Misrata, both for the election and to commemorate the date, exactly a year ago, when the city rose up against the regime of Kadhafi who had banned elections as an “invention of the West.”
The “city of martyrs” in Libya’s revolution was besieged for several months by Kadhafi’s forces and saw some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.
“Today we are tasting freedom and democracy. Thank God, the blood of the martyrs was not spilt in vain,” said Fama al-Shawesh, a 19-year-old student, waving blue ink on a finger to show she had voted.
At a polling station in the city centre, voters entered a private cubicle to select their candidate. After casting their ballot, they were made to dip a finger in indelible blue ink, in a bid to prevent people from voting twice.
“I can’t describe this feeling. Freedom, democracy, no fear, no repression. I can see the pride in the eyes of women who come to vote here,” said Jamila Touhami, director of a girls’ secondary school which also housed a polling station.
She said she was surprised by the “maturity” shown by voters.
“Most of them, including the illiterate, seem to know what they are doing. I think the awareness campaign by the local media had the expected result,” she said.
Misrata’s former rebels and police monitored the entrance to the first polling station on the city’s main Tripoli Avenue, scene of the fiercest clashes with pro-Kadhafi fighters during last year’s conflict.
The ballot boxes have been imported from neighbouring Tunisia and the special indelible ink from Britain.
“This is an initiative of the city. It is an initiative of our youth. Several other cities have sent their delegates to observe and gain experience,” said Mohammed Korman, head of another city centre polling station.
“We lived in a coma for 40 years. These elections are an accomplishment. Unlike other countries, we have no institutions. Organising a ballot involving tens of thousands of people is not an easy task,” he said.
The count began after voting closed as scheduled at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT), with the results to be announced on Tuesday.
Misrata, Libya’s third biggest city, is known for its trading and business community.
But in recent weeks its former rebels who are now powerful militias have gained notoriety after allegations by international human rights groups that they have “tortured” their prisoners who are mostly former fighters of Kadhafi.
Several Misrata militias have also stayed put in Tripoli, much to the dismay of residents of the capital, which fell in August.