Barack Obamas election is undoubtedly a historic moment for the US, but it got me thinking whether other countries had politicians from minority groups whose rise was equally extraordinary, or whether this really was American exceptionalism. In trying to make such comparisons, you first need to try and specify what makes Obamas victory so remarkable in general terms. Id say it is the combination of three things. Firstly, its the democratic election of an outsider. Secondly, that that outsider comes from an ethnic minority that has been until recently long been marginalised and ridiculed. Thirdly, the politician is clearly distinctive to anyone who sees or hears them: they cant pass as a member of the majority group.
Ive limited myself to more or less democratic systems for the obvious reason that in a non-democratic system, minorities can rise to leadership for many reasons other than their electoral success: kings, for example, can inherit the throne (James I, George I), conquer (Canute) or marry into the royal family (William III). As another variant, a political system can be rigged to ensure the rule of an ethnic minority group (as in Apartheid-era South Africa).
Obamas significance in the US is not simply that hes from an ethnic minority; after all, almost all ethnic groups in the US are minorities, and soon even whites will be. Its that he comes from an ethnic minority that has been oppressed and derided for centuries. You might argue for the Scots and the Welsh being ethnic minorities within the UK (theyre certainly cultural minorities), but that doesnt make the election of Gordon Brown or Lloyd George anything like as remarkable. Theres more of an argument for an earlier period in Britain when Scots really were despised outsiders, but then youre getting back to a pre-democratic time. (The Earl of Bute may have been jeered at as a Scot, but its hard to argue that an earl is ever really oppressed). On the other hand, I think an ethnically Irish Prime Minister would still be a noteworthy development for the UK, given the troubled history of that minority group.
Counting only those coming from marginalised and despised groups also eliminates some of the other possible comparisons. French-Canadians, such as Pierre Trudeau, dont count. Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are both outsiders (Sarkozy as the son of an immigrant and also having Jewish ancestry, Merkel as an Ossi), but these differences arent as socially and culturally important as that between black and white in the US. Alberto Fujimori of Peru is certainly from a very visible minority, but as far as I know Japanese Peruvians arent at the bottom of the social heap.
That leaves me with two parallels to Obama (though if anyone can think of more, Id be interested to hear). One is Evo Morales of Bolivia, who claims to be the first Amerindian president. (The controversy about whether he is really the first shows some of the difficulties of deciding who counts as belonging to an ethnic minority). The other is British: Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli became Prime Minister at a time when practising Jews had only just been allowed to become MPs. He was a convert to Christianity, which allowed him to enter the House of Commons earlier. But although he was not religiously a Jew, he was certainly seen as ethnically one and suffered much hostility as result. Nor did he make any attempt to pass as non-Jewish, but was noted for his exotic dress and manner. In terms of implausible leaders, Id say Disraeli certainly measures up to Obama.
Disraelis example also shows two more things. One is that the success of an ethnic minority leader doesnt mean that prejudice against his or her ethnic group disappears. Disraeli didnt lead to the end of British anti-semitism (I dont know whether it even had much of a temporary effect), and Obama wont lead to the end of prejudice against blacks. But the other, perhaps more significant thing, is that Disraeli had no Jewish successors: there hasnt been another Jewish prime Minister and the next Jewish party leader was Michael Howard, more than a century later.
All this suggests that concentrating on the first outsider of whatever particular kind to become leader may be misleading as a sign of enlightened attitudes. Many political systems that are clearly prejudiced as a whole (against particular ethnic groups, classes or women) can nevertheless allow exceptional members of such groups to rise to the top. The question isnt so much whether other systems would allow a black politician to become Prime Minister/President etc: its whether they would allow a black politician with Obamas exceptional skills to become leader. I think, at least in the UK (Im less sure about other European nations) they would. As Disraeli shows, its not only in America…
As an extra, this is a rough comparison of the US and UK in terms of relative numbers of black politicians (although the figures arent directly comparable, since the UK figures tend to put black and Asian politicians together). In 2007 the US had 30 black members of congress out of 535 senators/representatives (7.1%) and African-Americans made up 12.3% of the population. This means that African-Americans have about 58% of the representation they should have in an entirely representative system. In the UK, there are 15 Black/Asian MPs out of 646 (2.3%) and ethnic minorities form 7.5% of population, which means that minorities have about 31% of the expected representation. However, the UK looks to be catching up fast: the Guardian article I cite suggests that after the next election there will be 25 or more Black/Asian MPs in the next election (3.9%). This still leaves ethnic minorities under-represented (52% of balanced numbers), but noticeably less so. (For comparison, there are less than 40% of the women there should be in the UK and less than 30% in the US).