MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - On the bullet-scarred buildings of Libya’s third largest city, new posters have appeared in the last few weeks bearing messages its citizens have never seen before.
“Just as you were present on the front line, be there for the election,” say some.
Banners in the windows of shops below charred walls ask: “If you don’t vote, who will?”
Misrata, scene of the biggest and bloodiest battle in the eight-month war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, is getting its first taste of democracy.
Its citizens go to the ballot box on Monday to elect 28 members of the Misrata local council, who will have the tough job of rebuilding a city of around 300,000 people which was bombed beyond recognition.
“These are the first elections in more than 40 years,” said 56-year-old businessman Mohammed Miftah al-Teer. “We will only choose the good people.”
Nearby, along the main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, stores, government offices and apartment blocks are blown to pieces.
“It is necessary to have elections to make things clear for people as to what to do and not to do,” 32-year-old Mustafa Ali Shanab said. “Of course you can’t just choose anyone, he must have abilities and responsibility and of course care about Misrata. We are very excited.”
The coastal city set up its own electoral committee last month to organise the polls. It wants to set a precedent for the rest of Libya, as the interim national government leads the oil-producing country to its first free polls in June to elect a national assembly which will have the job of writing a constitution.
“We need to give a case study not only to our brothers in Libya but to the rest of the globe that we can govern ourselves and that democracy can excel if you allow people to choose,” said Mohammed Berween, head of the election committee set up to organise the Misrata polls. “We want to encourage people.”
Berween, a politics professor at a Texas university, flew back to Misrata two months ago after more than 33 years abroad.
One of his first tasks was to get those eligible to vote to register. In 10 days, about 100,000 have done so, he said. Now his team of eight, plus volunteers, work late into the night preparing an election guide and ballot papers and trying to find cars with loud hailers to publicise the polls.
“It is overwhelming because we started from scratch,” he said. “I hope the turnover on election day will be great.”
A list of around 245 candidates has been finalised. Voters will pick candidates to represent their area.
During the conflict, many Libyan cities hastily set up local councils without much process. Misrata officials say now it is time for the people to choose.
“The February 17 revolution came to establish democracy and of course the first step of democracy is to elect officials through ballot boxes,” said the current head of the 20-strong Misrata local council, Khalifa Abdallah al-Zwawi.
“As Misrata set an example during the war ... we wanted to make sure that the first election experience of international standards would be in this city.”
The small town of Zwara last year held local elections but the Misrata polls are the first in a major city, its residents say.
Misrata was besieged by elite Gaddafi forces for months and bombarded with mortars, shells and rockets. Against all odds, the city held on and its forces went on to help take Tripoli.
Despite the huge scale of destruction Misrata has become a rare bastion of order in Libya. The local government is relatively efficient, rules are enforced and there is a sense of people working together.
That is in stark contrast to the capital Tripoli, where different militias and interest groups collide in a chaotic and sometimes violent free-for-all while a weak national government looks on powerless to intervene.
Preparations for the national election in June are not running smoothly. Dozens of parties have sprung up. But the electoral picture has been clouded by a lack of security and wrangling over how the vote will be run.
Wartime rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has said Libyans could shy away from the June elections unless more is done to educate them about the vote.
Misrata, meanwhile, is quickly learning how to organise polls. Candidates have picked symbols for the ballot papers for illiterate voters which include a lion, telephone, reindeer, umbrella, fire extinguisher, a dove and a pistol.
All candidates must stand as independents rather than on a party ticket. Four are women. One of them, schoolteacher Naiema Mohammed Obaid, says she will run in the name of wives and mothers who suffered during the conflict.
“Women played a major role during the revolution so I am not just representing myself, I am representing all the women,” she said. “Even if I don’t win, at least I will have had the experience. The important thing is that women get involved.”
In male-dominated Libyan society, the 45-year-old mother of six says she has faced opposition from men but that has not deterred her: “Misrata has a lot of needs. Misratans faced many psychological difficulties during this war, so for me the most important thing they need is relief.”
On the streets of Misrata, residents take pride in being allowed to vote for the first time.
“We want to elect those who are capable and who can serve the country. We want to choose the right person for the position,” resident Hussein Sherfad said.
“This is our first election experience because during the tyrant’s regime, we were not even allowed to talk about elections. Everybody is happy because of the election and everyone wants to go and vote.”
Additional reporting by Taha Zargoun and Hamuda Hassan; editing by Andrew Roche