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Libyans turn out big in landmark election

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) — In an act of severance with the legacy of Moammar Gadhafi, Libyans went to the polls Saturday to elect a national assembly.

The landmark vote was marred in places by disruptions that prompted polling centers to close but the overall turnout was greater than expected.

The last time Libya held an election was almost half a century ago and for many people, the act of casting a ballot was novel after four decades of autocratic, one-man rule.

The excitement was palpable on the streets and by the numbers: More than 3,500 candidates stood in the election for a 200-seat national assembly. About 80% the 3.5 million eligible voters registered to cast a ballot.

Men and women, young and old waited patiently in long lines in cities and towns across Libya — some that were war zones only a year ago. After voting, people proudly waved their right index finger smudged in purple indelible ink as proof of their vote.

Sizzling summer temperatures did not keep people away in Tripoli, where loudspeakers blared: “Allahu akbar” (God is great).

People began converging in the city’s main square once called Green Square for Gadhafi’s political philosophy outlined in his Green Book but now known as Martyr’s Square for all those who fell in last year’s revolution.

Hanaa bin Dallah, 32, carried her 2-month-old son Rahman with her to the polls. She was heartened by the participation of so many people, despite the weather.

“I hope my word will make a difference — not like the past,” she said.

Hawwaa BouSaida, 65, said she had never been to school in her life but was proud to be voting.

“After 42 years of not even not knowing what elections are, and were blinded, we are voting today for the first time,” she said.

More than 13,000 soldiers were on the streets Saturday. But not all went smoothly.

In the eastern city of Ajdabiya, five polling centers opened but four others on the outskirts were closed.

Earlier this week protestors attacked a warehouse and torched ballots and other election materials.

It was one of several anti-election incidents staged staged by Libyans in the east who see an unequal distribution of seats in the national assembly. The 200 seats are allocated by population, reserving 100 for the western Tripolitania, 60 for Cyrenaica in the east and 40 for the south.

The mistrust stems from the many years of Gadhafi’s rule, under which the eastern region was largely neglected and marginalized. Benghazi emerged as the cradle of the Libyan uprising but many of its residents now feel their revolution has been usurped by the National Transitional Council seated in Tripoli.

Authorities flew in fresh ballots printed in the United Arab Emirates but the shipment did not arrive in time for all the Ajdabiya polls to open in tome.

Seven other polling stations in and around Benghazi were also closed due to pro-federalist threats against voters.

Some may open later in the day if the security situation improves or there may be voting Sunday at polls that were closed Saturday.

On Friday, anti-aircraft fire hit a Libyan air force helicopter transporting ballot boxes from the eastern city of Benghazi to nearby areas, the Interior Ministry said.

One person was killed. It was unclear who was behind the attack.

Saturday’s vote is sure to be a litmus test for post-Gadhafi Libya. The new national assembly will be tasked with appointing a transitional government and crafting a constitution.

The nation’s new leaders, however, will have their work cut out for them as they begin a new, more democratic era.

Amnesty International published a scathing report this week on lawlessness in Libya, urging the nation’s authorities to rein in revolutionary militias accused of a plethora of human rights violations and establish a functioning judiciary.

Female politicians vie for Libyan votes

The disparate groups came together to topple Gadhafi but remain divided along regional lines. More than 200,000 Libyans are still armed and often operate outside of the law, according to Amnesty.

Rights group: Rein in Libyan militias

Security is just one of many obstacles.

The new government must figure out how to unify the country as it moves forward. That includes a reconciliation process for Gadhafi loyalists.

And there is the task of rebuilding a nation ravaged by dictatorship and last year’s conflict.

The National Transitional Council, Libya’s de facto rulers since Gadhafi was captured and killed in October, inherited a land where few civil institutions existed. The new government will have to create a functioning society out of that vacuum.

Libyans are clamoring for basic services — at the top of the list is adequate health care. Other problems are easily visible. Heaps of trash litter roads because of the lack of proper disposal services.

Campaign posters and billboards in Libyan cities and towns advertised all the candidates running. Most are unknown to Libyans as is the political process itself. Gadhafi was not one to cultivate political culture.

But Libyans have high hopes for their future.

“If Libya’s issues are a mosaic, I believe I hold one piece of it,” said Awziya Shweigi, one of the thousands of candidates. “It might be a small one, but an effective one that completes it.”

A geneticist by trade, she has been working to identify the bodies of those who died in Libya’s eight-month uprising. Now, she said she wants to do more.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been in Libya ahead of the parliamentary vote, said he was guardedly optimistic about Libya’s transition.

“The glaring shortfalls in the transition are the lack of development in the security sector and the continued activity of powerful militias,” Wehrey wrote on the think tank’s website.

“It’s tempting on the surface to see the situation on the ground as chaotic and alarming with armed men roving the streets. But it’s not all bad news, in many cases the militias actually maintain a degree of discipline, provide pre-election security, and work with the government to police their own areas — so things are being kept under control at least for now. The key question is how these militias will react to the election results and the subsequent distribution of power among tribes and towns.”

Because polling is virtually nonexistent, it’s difficult to predict winners and losers in Saturday’s voting, said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“But it is clear that religion and identity politics will play a vital role,” she wrote on the council’s website.

She, too, expressed optimism but questioned whether women would end up with any significant representation. About 45% of registered voters are women. “Solid, but imperfect progress,” Coleman wrote.

“In theory, half of the 80 seats reserved for political parties are supposed to go to women because political party lists are required to contain equal numbers of men and women,” she said.

Shweigi said she may not be an expert on defense or the national budget, but as a woman, she represents a large part of Libyan society. She is a widow and mother of six, and said her experience with family will make her an asset.

She has been campaigning on the streets, fully covered in Islamic dress, talking to women — and men.

That’s a huge change in this Islamic nation, said Samer Muscati of Human Rights Watch.

“Previously we would not have as many pictures of women outside in public spaces, and now that’s becoming a normal event at least in Tripoli and some other areas as well,” he said. “So I think this election is changing women’s participation not only in politics but also in a larger scale.”

Shweigi said she doesn’t expect to win Saturday.

But she, like so many other Libyans, feels she was born again after Gadhafi was gone. And she wanted to experience the fruits of the revolution.

CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh reported from Tripoli and Moni Basu from Atlanta.

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