Iraq's Sunni Nonvoters

President Bush's plan for a democratic Iraq could falter in that nation's first election on Jan. 30. Many of the minority Arab Sunnis plan not to vote. That could mean at least 10 to 20 percent of voters won't cast a ballot, raising doubts about the election's legitimacy and setting back Mr. Bush's hopes for a democratic Middle East that forsakes terrorism.

Some Sunnis simply fear being attacked by antidemocracy terrorists if they vote. Others, however, say a boycott will send a message to Iraq's majority Shiites: Either ensure minority rights for us in the emerging political rules, or we will sit out this election for a new Iraq.

The Sunnis are making a mistake. It's far better to put their nose in this tent than leave it out. Election boycotts rarely work, especially in elections that establish a whole new government. Just ask Americans.

After the US Civil War, many white Southerners boycotted the first election under Reconstruction. One North Carolina senator wrote: "We have lost all hope of escaping the vengeance of the Northern people, and are preparing for the worst." The boycott tactic failed, and today the South dominates US politics.

Another example was the 1994 election in South Africa that saw a free election ending white rule. The political party led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi and includes many of the Zulu tribe opposed the election unless he was first given autonomy for his home region. He ordered a Zulu boycott, and violence ensued. But a few days before the election, he called it off, and has become a player in the new political order.

In Iraq, the election will fully expose Arab Sunnis as the minority party after decades of ruling the nation. The US occupation has given hope to the majority Shiites that they can now dominate, fairly, through the ballot. Rather than face that reality, several Sunni political parties have called for a boycott.

But a boycott would only damage Sunni interests by creating Shiite dominance far worse than if Sunnis were fully engaged in a democracy.

In history, boycotts often collapse and the opposition is later surprised that their participation in an election brings results they didn't expect. Better to fight for Sunni interests and hope for divisions within the Shiite camp than create a dangerous situation for Iraqi unity. And a flawed election will only strengthen the hand of Iraq's historic enemy, Iran, in manipulating Iraqi Shiites.

The motives for the election aren't suspect. The interim Iraqi regime wants to establish a representative government. If not enough Sunnis vote, then the government will need to appoint respected Sunnis to the elected body that will write a constitution.

The train for Iraq's democratization is leaving the station, and the Sunnis need to jump on it now.

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