Tripoli: Jubilant Libyan voters marked a major step toward democracy after decades of erratic one-man rule, casting their ballots today in the first parliamentary election after last year`s overthrow and killing of longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi.
But the joy was tempered by boycott calls, the burning of ballots and other violence in the country`s restive east.
In the capital Tripoli, residents turned out in droves to cast votes for the 200-seat legislature. Lines began to form outside polling centers more than an hour before they were scheduled to open. Policemen and soldiers were guarding the centers, searching voters as well as election workers.
"I have a strange but beautiful feeling today," said dentist Adam Thabet, waiting outside a polling center. "We are free at last after years of fear. We knew this day was coming, but we were afraid it could take long to come."
Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot in a station in the capital, Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said: "We are celebrating today and we want the whole world to celebrate with us."
Libya`s election is the latest fruit of Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian leaders. It is likely to be dominated by Islamist parties of all shades, a similar outcome to elections held in the country`s neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, which had had their own, though much less bloody, uprisings.
There are four major contenders in the race, ranging from a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party and another Islamist coalition on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
"This is history in the making," declared 26-year-old medic Farid Fadil as he waited to vote outside a polling center in Tripoli. "We were ruled by a man who saw himself as the state."
Libya`s intense regional, tribal, and ideological divisions however have cast a shadow over the vote. In the oil-rich east, there is a thriving pro-autonomy movement fueled by widespread resentment at what is perceived as domination by Tripoli.
Some easterners back a boycott of the election and today protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, according to former rebel commander in the area Ibrahim Fayed.