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Protests in Tripoli against the candidacies of Khalifa Haftar (front, with X) and Saif al-Islam Gadhafi (back, also with X). Photo: Hamza Alahmar/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Libya’s Dec. 24 presidential election is now all but certain to be postponed due to a dispute over who can run, raising fears that a period of relative calm will soon come to an end.

Why it matters: Many feared that a rushed, winner-take-all election in the deeply divided country would spark renewed conflict. A delay carries risks of its own.

The three main would-be candidates are all controversial.

  • Khalifa Haftar, the rogue general who dominates Eastern Libya, launched a military offensive on Tripoli in 2019 that sparked renewed civil war.
  • Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, an alleged war criminal who was rumored to be dead, has re-emerged as a potential heir to his late father, dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
  • Interim Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabeiba has broken a vow not to run, and critics say he's effectively bankrolling his campaign using state resources.

Driving the news: All three have faced legal challenges to their candidacies, some of which are ongoing. As a result, the electoral commission was unable to publish the candidate list on time to hold the requisite two weeks of campaigning before Dec. 24.

  • It remains to be seen whether the now-inevitable postponement will be days-long, indefinite, or somewhere in between.

The state of play: Political factions are maneuvering to take advantage of the precarious situation, said Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group.

  • Some want a delay of at least a year. Others contend Dabeiba's mandate ends on Dec. 24 and he must be replaced. Some are still pushing to vote as soon as possible.
  • Gazzini said "the most realistic option" would be a delay of a few months in order to sort out the list of candidates, adjust the election law, and try to gather commitments to respect the result.
  • Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert at the Atlantic Council, contends that if an election is held under the current circumstances — with a disputed legal basis, no provisions for power-sharing and armed groups backing particular candidates — "it's going to manufacture a crisis more than it’s going to solve anything."

What to watch: The potential pitfalls of the two-part elections are many.

  • "What happens if Haftar doesn’t make it to the second round?" Gazzini asked. "Is he going to all of a sudden say, ‘OK, no problem, I’m going to recognize the results anyways?’” This is, after all, the man who just launched a civil war.
  • "What happens if Saif al-Islam turns out to be the winner? Is everyone going to be cool and accept it as the result?" she added.

Between the lines: That potential outcome is the cause of particular concern in Washington, Badi said. Russia is backing Saif's candidacy, he notes.

Flashback: Once the face of reform in his father's regime, Saif became a pariah from the moment he declared — during the uprising in 2011 against his father — that thousands would die and Libya would descend into civil war if the protests continued.

  • Now those remarks strike many Libyans as prescient, Gazzini said, and Saif appears "clean from the dirty politics of the last 10 years."
  • Many Libyans have grown nostalgic for the Gadhafi era after a decade of chaos.

What's next: "The definition of a dire situation or a conflict in Libya is now basically this surreal show of drones, foreigners, Syrian mercenaries, Russian mercenaries," Badi said.

  • "We're bound to have some type of conflict, whether in the lead-up to elections being delayed or after the elections are delayed," he said, but likely not on that scale for now.

Go deeper

China builds its own movie empire

Expand chart
Data: Gower Street citing Comscore; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

China blocked all four of Disney's Marvel movies from being released in its theaters last year, a grim sign for U.S. film giants being squeezed out of the world's fastest-growing box office.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is using domestic films as a key conduit for mass messaging aimed at achieving political goals, leaving little room for foreign views.

Why 401(k) rollovers are so annoying

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If you happened to change jobs recently, you may have tried to transfer your retirement account from your former employer into an Individual Retirement Account or your new employer's 401(k) plan. If so, you probably encountered a bureaucratic gantlet — and you're not alone.

Why it matters: Kludgey processes around retirement account transfers result in people losing track of their funds, giving up important tax advantages, or otherwise disadvantaging themselves and being less prepared for retirement.

The hard math behind America's labor shortage

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office; Chart: Axios Visuals

Yes, the pandemic has created unusual temporary labor market dynamics. But in the bigger picture, the 2010s were a golden age for companies seeking cheap labor. The 2020s are not.

The big picture: In the 2010s, the massive millennial generation was entering the workforce, the massive baby bo0m generation was still hard at work, and there was a multi-year hangover from the deep recession caused by the global financial crisis.