TRIPOLI, Libya – Fears of militia violence and calls for a boycott threatened Friday to mar Libya's first nationwide parliamentary election, a milestone on the oil-rich North African nation's rocky path toward democracy after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Saturday's vote for a 200-member transitional parliament caps a tumultuous nine-month transition toward democracy for the country after a bitter civil war that ended with the capture and killing of Gadhafi in October. Many Libyans had hoped the oil-rich nation of 6 million would quickly thrive and become a magnet for investment, but the country has suffered a virtual collapse in authority that has left formidable challenges. Armed militias still operate independently, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.
On the eve of Saturday's vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, killing one election worker, said Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.
Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib vowed the government would ensure a safe vote Saturday, and condemned the election worker's killing and those who seek to derail the vote.
"Any action aimed at hindering the election process is against the supreme interest of the nation and serves only the remnants of the old regime," he said next to a screen showing the face of the slain worker. "It is threatening to the future of the revolution and its accomplishments ... and an attempt to stop democracy for which Libyans sacrificed their souls."
It was not immediately clear who was behind Friday's shooting, but it was the latest unrest in a messy run-up to the vote that has put a spotlight on some of the major fault lines in the country — the east-west divide, the Islamist versus secularist political struggle.
Many in Libya's oil-rich east feel slighted by the election laws issued by the National Transitional Council, the body that led the rebel cause during the civil war. The laws allocate the east less than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely-settled desert south.
The east was systematically neglected and marginalized for decades by Gadhafi, and easterners are sensitive to anything they perceive of as an attempt to prolong that neglect after the sacrifices they made during the civil war.
After the NTC passed election laws, several tribal leaders along with former rebel commanders in the east declared self-rule, set up their own council and formed their own army, while saying that they would boycott elections and even work to prevent Saturday's vote from taking place. They are pushing for semi-autonomy for the east.
Former rebel fighters from the east late Thursday in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns took control over oil refineries in the towns of Ras Lanouf, Brega and Sidr, shutting down the facilities to pressure the NTC to cancel the vote. Earlier this week, ex-rebel fighters and other angry protesters in Benghazi and in the nearby town of Ajdabiya attacked election offices, setting fire to ballot papers and other voting materials.
Fadlallah Haroun, a former rebel commander in the east's regional capital Benghazi and proponent of eastern semi-autonomy and an election boycott put it simply: "We don't want Tripoli to rule all of Libya."
He said boycott supporters would take to the streets on election day to "prevent people from voting, because this is a vote that serves those who stole the revolution from us." He said they would not take up arms but when asked how they would stop voters, he said, "We will see tomorrow."
It was not clear how much support the calls for a boycott enjoyed.
Nearly 2.9 million Libyans, or 80 percent of Libyans eligible to vote, have registered for the election and more than 3,000 candidates have plastered the country with posters and billboards. Polls are to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time, with results expected within a week of voting.
There are four major parties in the race, ranging from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
Flush with money, the Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns, and they are hoping to become a political force in post-Gadhafi Libya like the Islamists have in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia following the ouster of authoritarian regimes there.
Three other parties also are expected to perform well: Former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril's secular Alliance of National Forces, former jihadist and rebel commander Ahmed Belhaj's Al-Watan — also cofounded by Brotherhood leaders — and the National Front party, one of Libya's oldest political groups, which is credited with organizing several failed assassination attempts against Gadhafi.
The new parliament initially had two missions: to elect a new transitional government to replace the one appointed by the NTC and to put together a 60-member panel to write the country's constitution. Each of Libya's three regions was to have 20 seats on the panel.
However, in a last-minute move, the NTC decreed that the constitutional panel instead will be elected by direct vote, leaving the parliament only with the task of forming a government, angering many candidates who campaigned largely on the basis of their role in overseeing the drafting of the constitution.
Fathi Baja, a leading secular member of the NTC, alleged that the move was illegal because it came in the middle of the election process, and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating it. He said the group fears that it won't be able to secure a majority of votes in the upcoming parliament.
"It is a precautionary move by the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "After spending so much money in the campaign, they figured that votes will be scattered and they will not be a powerful player in parliament."
A separate vote for the constitutional panel, he said, would give the Brotherhood a chance to regroup and focus its efforts on the charter.
Youssef al-Ramis, a leading Brotherhood figure, rejected the allegations, but acknowledged that the group might not win big in elections.
"After 40 years of having our reputation tarnished by the former regime, the Muslim Brotherhood still has a long way to go," he said.
The accusations point to the division that is likely to be starkly drawn in the parliament and Libya's politics in the months and years ahead — Islamist versus secular.
In a less divisive decision, the NTC also decreed that the new constitution will definitely give a role to Islamic law. In this conservative, almost entirely Muslim country, nearly all politicians accord Shariah a role in the constitution.
The difference between parties, however, would be in to what extent Shariah will be enforced.