Polls have closed late Saturday after Libyans voted in their first national elections in over four decades amid acts of sabotage in the east by protesters who feel their region is under-represented in the incoming congress.
Initial vote counting showed Libya’s National Forces Alliance to be ahead so far, sources told Al Arabiya.
In Tripoli, polling stations opened on schedule at 0500 GMT with lines of voters eager to elect the General National Congress, which will be at the helm of the country for a transition period, an AFP journalist said.
“Words cannot capture my joy, this is a historic day,” said Fawziya Omran, 40, one of the first women in line at the Ali Abdullah Warith school at the heart of the capital.
Voters turned up draped in black, red and green flags -- the colors adopted by revolutionaries who toppled long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi last year -- while mosques blasted chants of “God is Great.”
The residents of Tripoli have enjoyed a spell of calm in contrary to those in cities in eastern Libya which have been subject to outbreaks of deadly violence and threats to disrupt the vote.
On Friday, gunfire struck a helicopter in eastern Libya killing an election worker.
One protester killed
Meanwhile, an anti-election protester was shot dead in Libya’s eastern town of Ajdabiya when he tried to steal a ballot box from a polling station, a local security official said.
It was the first death reported on the day of Libya’s first free national poll in 60 years. Ajdabiya has been a focus of protests against the election by easterners who say the vote is a sham and want more autonomy for their region.
The official said by telephone that the protester was killed in an exchange of fire with local people trying to prevent the election of a new national assembly from being disrupted.
Ian Martin, head of the United Nations mission to Libya, urged “all voters to exercise their hard-earned democratic right to elect their National Congress representatives” while condemning the deadly attack.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned that the electoral process in Libya is “imperiled by armed protesters who... are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country.”
Also in the run-up to the polls, five oil facilities have been forced cease production by armed protesters who want greater representation for the east in the incoming 200-member congress.
Armed protesters last Sunday ransacked the office of the electoral commission in Benghazi. Arsonists in nearby Ajdabiya later set fire to a depot with polling material.
The make-up of the congress has been a matter of heated debate, with political factions such as the federalist movement calling for more seats.
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) says seats were distributed according to demographic considerations, with 100 seats going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south.
But factions in the east want an equal split of the assembly’s seats and have threatened to sabotage Saturday’s vote if this demand is not met.
The authorities dismiss such groups as a disruptive minority, pointing out that more than 2.7 million people, or around 80 percent of the eligible electorate, have registered to take part in the historic poll.
Libya has not seen elections since the era of late monarch King Idris, whom Qaddafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969.
Parties were banned as an act of treason during Qaddafi’s 42 years of iron-fisted rule. Now there are 142 parties fielding candidates.
A February 2011 uprising ended more than four decades of the dictator who was killed while on the run last October.
A total of 80 seats are reserved for party candidates while 120 seats are open to individual candidates.
From the parties, the coalition of ex-war time prime minister Mahmud Jibril is seen as a key contender among liberals, facing stiff competition from two Islamist parties -- Justice and Development and Al-Wattan.
The incoming congress will have legislative powers and appoint an interim government. But it no longer has the right to appoint a constituent authority, under a last-minute amendment issued by the outgoing NTC.
Candidates with Islamic 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 footholds in power after last year's uprisings.
But the credibility of the vote will be wrecked if armed militia with regional or tribal loyalties discourage voters from turning out, or if disputes over the outcome degenerate into pitched battles between rival factions.
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.
Parity rules for the new assembly mean there are many female candidates. Yet many of their campaign posters in Tripoli have been defaced, underlining the ambivalence felt by some in Libyan society about a greater female role in politics.
“Politics is a new field for men and women in Libya,” said Lamia Busidra, 38, a leading candidate for the al-Wattan party in Benghazi. “The qualifications are there, women can do it, they just need the confidence in themselves to do it.”
Early partial results after polls close at 8 p.m (1800 GMT) on Saturday will give some guide to the make-up of the assembly but full preliminary results are not due until Monday.