As Iraq prepares to vote on May 12, the public debate has been just a bit unusual. Following the country’s war against the Islamic State extremists, candidates are seeking votes with appeals across sectarian lines and more discussion of issues than in any other election campaign. This change is incremental but is one of several that make this a moment to step back and measure Iraq’s evolution since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Despite what Iraqis have suffered over 15 years—or perhaps because of it—the will to democratize is alive and growing. A real meaning of these elections is this: If the United States and the international community can sustain their engagement, Iraq has a chance to stabilize, and to turn back the inevitable future attempts to revive extremist violence.

Iraqi voter

Iraq’s Critical Moment

The reasons for hope are less conspicuous than the reasons for doubt. Iraq is obviously more fragile than before the ISIS cataclysm began in 2014. It still faces threats from ISIS, and the country’s many contending factions are now more dangerously armed than before. The economy remains stalled since the end of major warfare last year, and as many as 11 million people, nearly a third of the population, need humanitarian aid. And the deadlock in a power struggle between the central government and the Kurdistan region risks a revival of violence in disputed areas.

So, this weekend’s election is critical. Iraq’s next government must manage those economic, security and constitutional crises. And it must deliver for a population that largely lacks even electricity, drinkable water and basic health care. It must help 2.1 million displaced people return home, and must rebuild cities and infrastructure ruined by the Islamic State war. It must apply economic reforms, starting with enforcement of anti-corruption laws. It must lay the basis for the state’s long-term success through reconciliation among conflicting factions. And it must manage relations with competing regional and international powers, especially Iran and the United States.

These tasks can be addressed only through a political maturity that is difficult in any country—a readiness by leaders to subordinate their own interests to the national welfare in compromises with their longtime foes. Inclusiveness in government must become far deeper and more real than the traditional sharing of cabinet posts (and corruption opportunities) among major factions.

A Different Election

This election is different largely because Iraqis are newly cognizant, and proud, of what they can achieve through unified effort. The 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein was done by a foreign force—but the defeat of ISIS was an Iraqi victory. While it required support from the international community, it was achieved largely by unprecedented cooperation among Shia, Sunnis, ethnic Kurds, Turkomans, Christians and other minorities. The pride in that victory has shifted the election debates away from sectarianism and toward greater readiness to work for the common good. As a result, this election has been the most issue-oriented of any in modern Iraq.

Analysts have noted a “fragmentation” of Iraqi political alliances—notably among Shia and Kurds, who this year are seeing their communities represented by a greater number of political parties. While these changes can seem to risk greater conflict within the state, they reflect at least in part a decentralization and localization of politics that can allow for greater accountability in Iraq’s governance.

This election’s realignment of political coalitions follows a separate shift by influential leaders from armed activity to politics. Nawshiran Mustafa, a longtime leader of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, founded the unarmed Kurdish political movement Gorran (Change) nearly a decade ago. It quickly won seats in the Kurdistan Region and national parliament. In this weekend’s vote the movement will be tested for the first time under new leaders, after Mustafa died last year.

More startling for many, perhaps, is the evolution of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In 2004, his militia, Jaish al-Mahdi fought rival factions and U.S. troops. Under armed and legal pressure by the Iraqi Government and U.S.-led coalition, he disarmed his militia and focused on politics, winning seats in the parliament and cabinet. For the fight against ISIS, al-Sadr recruited an armed force to fight under the sanction of the state, but his campaign for power is now political. He has led sit-in protests at parliament to press for political, judicial and other reforms—and in this election has allied with secularist and even communist groups.

The broad measurement of Iraq’s evolution over 15 years is that it has become one of the few Middle Eastern states to choose its government in largely competitive elections. This weekend will represent the fourth time it has done so since the toppling of Saddam and the passage of the 2005 constitution.

The institutionalization of elections, like this year’s tilt toward a more cross-sectarian, issue-focused debate, is a sign of Iraq’s democratic will. But it is by no means evidence that democratization will succeed. Nurturing these changes, and helping Iraq’s government stay focused on the needs of its people rather than the struggles for factional power, is vital. So is continued U.S. engagement. If the United States loses focus, Europe and the international community will follow. That could waste the best opportunity so far to help Iraqis build a working democracy strong and stable enough to turn back extremism and to avoid serving as a battleground for conflicts among its neighbors.

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