By Ulf Laessing
TUNIS (Reuters) - Libya should start the process to hold an election in spring 2019 only after a national conference to discuss its ongoing conflict, the U.N. Libya envoy said on Thursday, officially burying the unlikely idea of a vote next month.
Western powers and the United Nations had originally hoped to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 10 as a way out of Libya's conflict raging since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
But violence and a deadlock between rival administrations had made that goal unrealistic, although nobody had declared it officially dead or offered a new time frame.
Instead, the United Nations wants to focus on a national conference to give Libyans a forum to discuss their future and bridge divisions between armed groups, tribes, town and regions, U.N. Libya special envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Security Council.
"The National Conference is to be held in the first weeks of 2019. The subsequent electoral process should commence in the spring of 2019," Salame said, without specifying whether he meant it was expected then or it ought to happen then.
Saleme did not give a new date for elections or even mention the Dec. 10 date agreed upon verbally by rival Libyan players at a summit hosted by France in May.
Shelving the vote is the latest setback for Western powers that helped topple Gaddafi seven years ago before stepping back and seeing hopes for a democratic transition crumble.
Salame said the internationally recognized House of Representatives had deliberately failed to approve legislation to hold a vote.
"The House has failed to uphold its responsibilities," he said. "It is now clear that the postponed sessions and contradictory public statements (by lawmakers) were simply intended to waste time. The body calling itself Libya’s sole legislature is largely sterile."
The U.N. had hoped to unify before a vote Libya's two rival administrations - a U.N.-backed one in the capital where a rival assembly is also based, and a largely powerless eastern version aligned with commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces control much of the east.
But little progress has been achieved.
"To both Houses, elections are a threat that must be resisted at all costs, but to the citizens, elections are a means of liberation from the ineffective and increasingly illegitimate authorities," Salame said.
Salame, the sixth U.N. envoy since 2011, had little concrete to offer beyond already stated goals of handing over security in Tripoli to regular forces, a plan resisted by armed groups currently in control.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Bill Berkrot)