Forty years of corrupt, ineffective centralized authority under the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, and a failed transition in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution have left Libya marred by instability and conflict. 

The most recent outbreak of civil war following the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) attack on Tripoli underscores that Libya remains a fractured polity, with fissures along ethnic, tribal, geographic and ideological lines. Eight years after the revolution, Libya has yet to develop a comprehensive political system for defining power and resource distribution and national reconciliation has proven elusive. In this context, municipal government has become the frontline for addressing citizen needs and mitigating local conflict.

To measure public perceptions of municipal governance across Libya, IRI conducted a survey of n=4,636 adults in 15 municipalities to measure the effectiveness of local institutions with respect to service delivery issues and identify key issues in the community to inform decision-making by local authorities. Fielded as the LNA commenced operations to take control of the Fezzan in southern Libya, IRI’s poll offers insights into Libya’s local government experiment in an ever-evolving and complex environment. Below are the key takeaways.

Service delivery, economic opportunity and security were the primary issues among respondents

Despite vast economic, social, political and security differences in surveyed municipalities, respondents shared common concerns about poor government services, indicating that governing bodies – whether in territory controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA) or by the LNA – have failed to deliver to citizens. Libya has yet to develop a comprehensive political and legal system for defining power and relationships between local, regional and national level institutions, which has contributed to this failure. Existing legislation on decentralization is incomplete, contradictory and largely unimplemented. As a result, municipal elected officials lack understanding of their roles and responsibilities, as well as the resources necessary to fulfill those roles.   

Municipal councils are viewed positively, particularly in comparison with national institutions

The municipal councils received notable support in comparison to negative views across the board for national institutions e.g. GNA, House of Representatives and Libyan Interim Government. In 13 out of 15 municipalities, a majority of respondents who said their area has a municipal council stated it is doing a “very good” or “somewhat good” job, with only Ghat and Sabha reporting lower approval ratings. Respondents also viewed them as “legitimate” – in all 15 surveyed municipalities, a majority of respondents who said their area has a municipal council said it was “a great deal” or “a fair amount” legitimate. The councils therefore are one of the only institutions that have some credibility with the Libyan people at the local level.

Municipal councils need to engage in more intensive outreach to their communities

Despite positive attitudes toward municipal councils, the survey found there is a degree of uncertainty regarding the councils’ roles and responsibilities. A majority of respondents in all 15 surveyed municipalities who said their area has a municipal council reported that they know “not very much” or “nothing at all” about the councils. This could be attributed to the fact that overwhelming majorities of respondents stated they have never interacted with any municipal council staff in their area.

Lessons Learned

IRI’s poll shows that even after five years of municipal experience, many respondents largely lack knowledge about not only the councils’ existence but also their purpose and responsibilities. This lack of understanding could be attributed to the fact that many municipal mandates expired in 2018, while appointed technocrats have replaced other elected councils. Contributing further to this confusion is the haphazard process through which new elections are being attempted. Current voter registration is extremely low, while the elections schedule has been amended repeatedly, including several that were postponed in the early hours of voting day. Citizens simply do not have consistent information available to understand who to hold accountable for the shortcomings of governance, or how to participate in the process.

Despite these challenges, municipal councils are still generally perceived as legitimate actors that are looked upon favorably, particularly in comparison to national institutions. In this fluid environment, it likely that Libya’s municipal councils will continue to serve as the face of governance in their communities, no matter how events unfold at the national level. The need for better service delivery, and the importance attached to it by respondents, underscores how crucial it is that the capacity of municipal councils be further developed, as they are the governing entities best positioned to address these concerns. IRI’s poll numbers suggest municipal councils can have a significant impact on the lives of Libyans and make serious strides towards improving quality of life.

For over 40 years, Libya was the subject of a brutal dictatorship that eliminated functional state institutions and prohibited several generations’ worth of experience in participatory governance. After only five years into Libya’s experiment with local government, it is important to appreciate the resilience and creativity municipal leaders have demonstrated in order to serve their constituents in this complex environment. As new leaders take their posts over the next year, there is opportunity to learn from the experience of their predecessors and to build on what they have achieved.

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