In 2005, Sunni Arab groups boycotted Iraq's first national elections, citing fears of violence and concerns that Shia candidates would unfairly dominate. With turnout as low as 2 percent causing Sunni politicians to fare poorly, the boycott deeply discredited the resulting government and were a direct precursor to some of the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War. The 2005 Sunni boycott was a disaster for Iraq's democracy and for the country as a whole.
So with the third-ever national elections this Sunday, it's surprising, even heartening, to see Sunni Arab groups not only participating but running a modest get out the vote campaign. The same Sunni towns and neighborhoods that were once told not to bother with a democracy sure to be dominated by Shia politicians (Iraq is majority Shia Arab) are now talking about the benefits of democratic participation. Sunni Arab engagement with Iraq's democratic process, even if that process remains deeply troubled, could be a real step forward for Iraq. If Sunni Arabs vote in large numbers, and if the election proceeds honestly, it will do much to legitimize the fledgling Middle Eastern democracy.
Wider Sunni involvement raises the stakes of the upcoming March 7 vote. The more they invest in this election, the more they stand to gain or to lose. If Sunni candidates do well and play a positive role in governance, Sunni voters will have all the more reason to participate in future elections, thus giving their implicit support. But should they give democracy an honest go, only to come away feeling shut out or treated unfairly, Sunnis would reasonably wonder if they could ever trust a Shia-dominated Iraqi democracy. Even under the best circumstances, Sunnis will hold a small minority in the government. Shia politicians appear likely to ally with Kurdish representatives, forming a majority coalition with little need to include Sunni Arabs.
Sunni candidates have struggled just to get on the ballot. This January, Shia politicians used de-Baathification laws to ban 500 Sunni politicians from the looming elections. Widely perceived as a move to eliminate political rivals, the ban was later repealed but some prominent Sunnis will remain off the ballot. It's clear that, for the foreseeable future, the Sunni Arab minority can expect less than fair treatment in Iraqi politics. Sunnis understand this, but they also understand that, for the moment, unfair representation is better than no representation at all. If that calculus changes, it's not hard to foresee how sectarian militias could reemerge from the Sunni neighborhoods now being patrolled by get out the vote campaigns.