BENGHAZI (Reuters) - People in Libya's second biggest city, Benghazi, voted on Saturday in a local election that will test support for a proposal to set up autonomous rule for eastern Libya.
Benghazi was the cradle of last year's revolt which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi but it is also the home of a movement which, frustrated with the new national rulers, wants to turn Libya into a federal state with autonomous provinces.
Supporters of autonomy for Cyrenaica, the eastern province that includes Benghazi, were running in the election to choose a new city council.
The self-styled Cyrenaica Congress has called for a boycott of Libya's first national election, scheduled for June 19, saying it will not give fair representation to the east but did not call for a boycott for Saturday's elections.
"The federalists ... have problems with centralization and the national assembly," said Mahdi al-Bahloul, an official with the commission which organized the vote. "They realize that the elections today are for the benefit of all of Benghazi."
But if candidates who back autonomy perform well in the elections, it could show how well he autonomy movement will do in June's vote for a national assembly.
"We want more people to understand the idea of federalism and how it will benefit the eastern region and Benghazi," al-Seiti told Reuters. "We eventually want a constitution that will be fairer to the east."
The drive for Cyrenaica autonomy has alarmed Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) which says it could lead to the break-up of the country.
It has also unsettled oil markets, because the bulk of the oil fields in Libya are in the east.
The election was the first in Benghazi since the 1960s.
Hundreds of people queued outside polling stations, which had been set up in the city's schools.
Bahloul said the closing time was extended by an hour to accommodate last minute voters who continued to come out in large numbers. He said 216,000 people had registered to vote.
The results were expected on Monday.
"It feels like we're celebrating today," Mohammed Azizi, a 20-year-old medical student said. "Everyone is happy, the organization is impressive and voting is as important to my future as studying for my exams are."
Gaddafi, who ran Libya for 42 years, banned elections saying they were bourgeois and undemocratic. Instead, he mixed repression with idiosyncratic notions of popular rule that, in effect, left him with unchallenged power.
Tawfiq Huweidi, 41, was imprisoned for four years under Gaddafi after being charged with sheltering Islamist opposition members. He is now running for a seat on the local council.
"I am happily impressed by the large numbers of voters today," the former accountant told Reuters. "Today we have proved that Benghazi is capable of functioning as a democracy."
He echoed dissatisfaction with the country's new rulers, who are viewed by many in Benghazi as remote and ineffective. A few months ago, an angry mob stormed a building in Benghazi where NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil was holding meetings.
"We can make Benghazi a better and stronger city. We just need to take back power from those (who are) unelected and failing to provide us with services," said Huweidi.
(Reporting By Essam al-Fetori and Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Writing by Hadeel Al-Shalchi)