Tripoli - Libyans vote on Saturday for a constituent assembly, the first body elected since the ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, tasked with steering the country through its critical transition.
"All fundamental questions have to be decided by this elected group of 200 people," Sami Zaptia, managing editor of Libya Herald, told AFP.
"It is very important. You don't write a constitution every day," he added.
To be chosen is the General National Congress, which will appoint a new interim government and a panel to draft a new constitution for the oil-rich North African nation.
Once the assembly holds its first session, the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), which has run Libya since Gaddafi’s ouster and death last year, must step down.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, head of a European Union observer mission, said the vote, which was postponed from 19 June for technical reasons, marks a historic opportunity.
"This election is the first opportunity for Libyans to choose their representatives in national polls after decades," he said.
"It marks a historic step for the country and its people. Given the vital role the General National Congress has in appointing the body to draft the constitution ... the election is crucial."
Libya has not seen elections since the era of late monarch King Idris, whom Gaddafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969, making this vote a new experience for many in a country with a mostly young population.
More than 2.7 million people, or about 80% of the eligible electorate, has registered to take part in the landmark poll.
Dozens of political associations
More than 4 000 people sought to run as candidates. But the electoral commission only approved 2 501 independents and 1 206 party candidates after an intensive vetting process designed to keep out former regime remnants.
And dozens of political associations, the majority of them listing democracy and a respect for Islamic law as core values, have emerged in the Muslim country where parties were long banned as a construct of the West.
A total of 120 seats are reserved for independents, with the remaining 80 open to political entities. But some parties are said also to be fielding individual candidates in the hope of bagging more seats.
"Some political parties have joined forces with independent candidates in order to beef up their possible representation in the national assembly," said Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.
But the outcome of the vote, she said, is likely to reflect local interests more than fixed ideologies, since the majority of seats are going to independent candidates pandering to the sensibilities of small districts.
The country has been divided into 72 constituencies. In some, voters will cast a vote for both party and individual candidates; in others, they will only have a choice of one or the other.
There are 629 women running. They are well represented on party lists, which alternate male and female candidates, but make up only 3.4% of the individual candidates.
No experience with democracy
Out of the 142 political entities in the mix, it is impossible to predict which ones will fare well, although some have been more visible than others in the 18-day campaign that ends on Thursday.
"The problem is that there is no track record or history of what they have done in the past so Libyans have had to acquaint themselves with them from zero. The vast majority are quite confused," Zaptia pointed out.
Many people, lacking familiarity with the democratic process and not always knowing who stands exactly for what, will ultimately vote for whom they recognise and trust, he said.
From the parties, the coalition of ex-war time prime minister Mahmud Jibril is seen as a key contender among liberals, facing stiff competition from two Islamist parties - Justice and Development and Al-Wattan.
The make-up of the congress has been a matter of heated debates in the run-up to the vote, with political factions such as the federalist movement in the east and other such voices in the south calling for more seats.
The NTC says the distribution of seats in the assembly was determined according to regional and demographic considerations, with 100 seats going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south.
But parties in the east want an equal split of the assembly's seats and have threatened to boycott and sabotage the process if their demands are not met. They've targeted polling centres in recent days.
Once appointed, the panel has 120 days to draft the national charter, which will require a two-thirds plus one vote to pass in the assembly, before being put to voters in a national referendum.
Some of the key issues to be determined by the constitution are the form of governance, the weight of Islam in state and society, the role of women and the rights of minorities.
After the constitution is approved, the assembly will have 30 days to issue a new election law, with elections for a government to be held 180 days after that, according to the NTC's constitutional declaration
If these benchmarks are met, the new authorities will be in power for a period of roughly 12 months, a short window of opportunity to draft a constitution and tackle key issues such as disarming militias and reviving the judiciary.
"They are going to be there for a short period. If they can keep the nation together, it should go smoothly," said Zaptia.
At stake, Gazzini says, is the "peaceful transition of Libya."