By Hani Amara and Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI -The head of Libya’s national unity government plans to run for president next month, according to a senior official, an apparent breach of a pledge to remain neutral when he took office in March under a U.N.-backed peace process.
Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah has become popular with big public spending programmes after years of civil war, and could be a frontrunner to win office as Libya’s first directly elected head of state since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown a decade ago.
But his decision could also add to political disputes over the election, which have overshadowed the peace process. Dbeibah and other cabinet members had pledged not to run for president when they were appointed to the Government of National Unity, which replaced two rival administrations after years of war between factions based in the east and west.
Dbeibah “announced his intention to run for the upcoming presidential election,” the senior official told Reuters, a day before registration for candidates officially opens.
Libya’s rival political institutions remain divided over the election’s legal basis, the rules governing candidacy and even the date.
Other potential candidates include Khalifa Haftar, the main civil war commander from the east, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the former dictator’s son. Parliament head Aguila Saleh could stand, as could powerful former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. A prominent comedian is among others who have already declared they will run.
As premier, Dbeibah has won popularity through populist programmes including financial support for young people seeking marriage and investment across Libya’s regions.
Those moves have also drawn him into competition with other major players in Libyan politics, including some of his potential rivals in the election.
Parliament speaker Saleh orchestrated a vote of no confidence in Dbeibah’s government in September, citing its spending plans.
Days later Saleh signed an election law that was rejected by an advisory body called the High State Council, after opponents said the law was passed improperly and tailored to allow Saleh to run.
While the law set Dec. 24 for the presidential vote, as envisaged by a U.N.-backed roadmap, it said parliamentary elections would take place at a later date. The U.N. Libya mission has said it is important for the president and parliament to be elected on the same day.
The Presidency Council, a three-person body serving since March as Libya’s transitional head of state, has said there must be consensus on the election rules.
The parliament’s election law also said candidates for president who already held official posts must step down from them three months before the voting date. Haftar and Saleh have both done so.
The election commission chairman Emad al-Sayeh, who has previously said parliamentary elections would take place within 30 days of the presidential election, said it had received amendments to the law from the parliament.
Registration for presidential election candidates would be open until Nov. 22 and for parliamentary candidates until Dec. 7, he said.