Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Political Strategy of the Sunnis

by John Heit


Last week, a fellow Santa Clara student wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper titled "Iraqi Election Is Successful". My favorite part of the article had to be the following quote:

"Sunni clerics reject the legitimacy of the elections because Sunni voters, who the clerics banned from voting, turned out in lower numbers than the rest of the Iraqis. To accept this complaint, one not only has to assume that the Sunni clerics hate democracy, which they do, but also that they don't understand how democracy works."

According to this guy, not only do the Sunnis hate democracy but they have no idea what it's all about. I think he should have done some more research before writing that.


There are quite a few pieces that need to be dealt with in that paragraph but I guess a good place to start is the Sunni position on the elections. The Sunnis don't oppose elections in all forms; they oppose elections under occupation. There is a BIG difference between there. The Sunnis aren't opposed to democracy as a form of government--they just don't want a democracy that is subservient to a foreign power (a trait that, I would argue, is hardly limited to the Iraqis!). Indeed, I think they are actually showing themselves to be quite the political strategists.

Part of the interim constitution says that the permanent constitution must be ratified by a national referendum on October 15 of this year. Should the constitution not be ratified in any three (3) provinces, the constitution goes back to the drawing board for a year. This three-province veto is supposed to be a check against a possible tyranny of the majority (the Shi'ite comprise about 70% of the Iraqi population). This veto was conceived (I believe) looking to the three Kurdish provinces in the north, hoping to protect this minority. But those acting as political strategists for the Sunnis (formally or informally, I have no idea) have noticed something: there are three provinces in which the majority of the registered voters are Sunnis!

Should the Sunnis be organized enough come October, they can threaten to veto any constitution that is not favorable or fair to them. That's a powerful political tool. It's a tool that would be far harder to use credibly if they had large turnout for the elections. By withstanding largely on principles of anti-occupation, the Sunnis can question the legitimacy of the government while being invited to work on the constitution (which they surely will, all the major parties have said they are not going to exclude the Sunnis). Then, they can veto the constitution if they don't like it!

Actually, if anything, the Sunnis have played their cards too well--they are probably going to be over-represented and overly politically influential in the drafting of the constitution. Estimates of the Sunni population vary quite a bit--from as high as 20% of the population to as low as 13%! No one actually knows for sure what the right numbers are!

It's quite conceivable that, come October, the Sunnis will wield far more political power than their population size may warrant. I guess you could say that not only do the Sunnis not hate democracy, but they're proving themselves to be quite adept within such a system.

For more information see:

Council on Foreign Relations Interview with David S. Patel

Available online

Council on Foreign Relations Interview with Fouad Ajami

Available online


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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