Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts Are a Bad Idea

Matthew Frankel
Matthew Frankel Federal Executive Fellow

February 24, 2010

For a while, the run-up to the 2010 general elections in Iraq appeared to be déjà vu all over again. The National Dialogue Front (NDF), a key Sunni political party, had decided to pull out of the election to protest the disqualification of hundreds of candidates—most notably their leader, Salah al-Mutlaq—for alleged ties to the banned Ba’th Party. At the last minute, the NDF walked back from the brink and decided to participate, hopefully signaling a growing understanding that election boycotts rarely succeed. The Iraqi Sunnis know this better than most, having learned this lesson the hard way just five years ago.

The Sunni community’s decision not to participate in the historic elections of January 2005 is now viewed as one of the great strategic blunders of the post- Saddam era. Claiming anti-Sunni bias from both the Shia parties and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and declaring that legitimate elections could not take place under occupation, major Sunni groups such as the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Iraqi Federation of Tribes decided to boycott the election. These groups initially tried to use the threat of a boycott to secure concessions, such as the elimination of a single-constituency structure for the voting that would benefit Shia or the establishment of a timetable for United States withdrawal, but none of these came to fruition.