TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI - Barely 13 percent of Libyan voters went to the polls by noon on Wednesday to elect a new parliament that officials hope will help restore order three years after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
Fresh fighting in the eastern city of Benghazi, part of the growing turmoil in the oil-producing country, overshadowed the vote. Residents reported explosions and a military plane firing in an area where forces of a renegade general and Islamist militants clash regularly.
Turnout was widely expected to be much lower than in July 2012, the first free national vote in more than 40 years. Some 1.5 million voters registered, roughly half the 2.8 million on the rolls in 2012, after registration rules were tightened.
By noon, only 200,000 had cast their vote, election officials said, blaming hot weather.
Libya is still struggling to make its transition into a stable democracy after four decades of one-man rule. The country has slid deeper into chaos since the renegade army general Khalifa Haftar opened a campaign against Islamists in the east.
Live cameras from Libyan news channels showed mostly empty polling stations. Officials planned to release more turnout figures in the evening and full results are not expected until later this week.
Some polling stations stayed shut for security reasons in the eastern Islamist hotspot of Derna, Kufra in the southeast where tribes regularly clash, and the main southern city of Sabha, officials said.
Without a functioning government and parliament, Libya is struggling to impose authority over heavily-armed former rebels, militias and tribes that helped oust Gadhafi but who now defy state authority and carve out their own fiefdoms.
Libya also has a budget crisis. Protests at oilfields and shipping ports by armed militias have reduced oil production, the country's lifeline, to a trickle.
Tripoli's partners in the West hope the vote will help it to begin rebuilding a viable state. Its nascent army, still in training, is no match for fighters hardened during the eight-month uprising against Gadhafi.
Many Libyans fear the vote will produce just another interim assembly. A special body to draft a new national constitution has still not finished its work, leaving questions over what kind of political system Libya will eventually adopt.
To discourage political infighting between parties, which paralyzed decision-making and led to a crisis over two rival prime ministers in May, candidates must run as independents rather than as party representatives.
“I am participating again to vote for the House of Representatives so we can rebuild Libya,” said Munira Ashour, a female teacher. “I didn't vote for any congressional members who had nominated themselves again because they have had their chances without making any progress.”
In Tripoli, former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan made a surprise appearance to cast his vote after returning from Europe, where he had fled when parliament ousted him in March.
“We hope the elections will achieve their goals and that the House of Representatives will make a new start, better than the past,” he told Reuters.
In Benghazi, polling stations opened despite clashes breaking out in one district where Haftar and Islamists often clash. Details were not immediately available.
Divisions need to be bridged between Libya's west, once favored by Gadhafi, and the neglected east where many demand autonomy and a greater share of the nation's oil wealth.
The vast desert country has several power centers. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, rooted in rural western coastal cities, is vying with tribal areas in both the west and east for control of the oil producer.
Electoral authorities tightened registration rules by requiring voters to show a national identification number, which many Libyans lack given the collapse of state services.
The new parliament will again be made up of 200 seats, but will be called the House of Representatives. Thirty-two seats are allocated to women.
Around 1,600 candidates were on the ballot, about 1,000 fewer than in the previous parliamentary vote. Some candidates put up street posters or platforms on social media, but the announcement of the election a month ago left little time before voting began, and there has been no real campaigning.