A Majority for the Minority?
November 20, 2007 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Has any democracy, in a free, fair and open election, ever chosen a racial minority as a head of state or head of government?

Obviously, next year presents the chance of the United States electing either a female (Clinton) or a racial minority (Obama) as President. While there have been many elected female leaders around the world, has any democracy ever elected a racial minority?

The only example I could think of is Manmohan Singh, the current Prime Minister of India. However, I'm not sure if he really counts because he wasn't directly elected and it was widely assumed at the time of the election that Sonia Ghandi would become Prime Minister. Also, while he is Sikh, I'm more interested in examples of racial, rather than religious, minorities. (Of course, in India, he may well be considered a racial minority as well - feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

Also, I'm not interested in examples from countries, like apartheid South Africa, where the racial minority kept power through disenfranchisement.
posted by thewittyname to Law & Government (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: What about Fujimori in Peru?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: in the 1860's, mexico elected benito juarez, a zapotec indian, to the presidency at a time where indians had only minimally better legal status than blacks did in america at the same time (i don't know if indians were a numerical minority at that point, but they were certainly at the bottom of the totem pole, politically). spanish was not even his first language.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: Disraeli was Jewish (sort of).
posted by hob at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2007


Probably most elected Latin American heads of state have historically been minority Hispanic (elected by majority-indigenous electorates). Just depends on how your definition of "free, fair, and open" defines the set.
posted by gum at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: Do ethnoreligious minorities count? NZ had a Jewish premier in the 19th century, Julius Vogel.
posted by Paragon at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2007


The Quebecois are a racial minority in Canada, yet there have been several Prime Ministers who were Quebecois e.g. Trudeau.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:54 PM on November 20, 2007


Quebecois are a race?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:59 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Meet Bobby Jindal, the current Governor-elect of the state of Louisiana.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I guess if I mention state governors, I should also mention Bill Richardson from New Mexico.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:08 PM on November 20, 2007


Not national, but state governors are fairly serious offices:

Doug Wilder, a black man, was governor of Virginia
Bobby Jindal, an India-Indian man, is governor-elect of Louisiana
Deval Patrick, a black man, is governor of Massachussets
Jennifer Granholm, if you count "ex-Canadian" as a minority, is governor of Michigan.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:08 PM on November 20, 2007


For religious minorities, don't forget JFK.
posted by Pants! at 1:21 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: On the flip side of gum's comment, Evo Morales claims to be the first indigenous person to be elected president of Bolivia.
posted by one_bean at 1:25 PM on November 20, 2007


Winston Peters (Maori) was deputy PM in NZ from 1994-98
posted by dydecker at 1:47 PM on November 20, 2007


This is a bit of a meta-answer, but you might want to look at Amy Chua's book World on Fire (Guardian review here), which talks about the social and political roles of economically-powerful but numerically-small groups like the Chinese in southeast Asia (here's the Wikipedia article on Chinese-Indonesians, for example), because rarely is race alone a determining factor in elections and politics.

I've only read the review, but it might shed some light on why the election of minorities to positions of power is rarer in the developing world (the subject of her book), or (perhaps, just a guess) in places where wealth correlates very strongly with race and ethnicity.
posted by mdonley at 2:04 PM on November 20, 2007


And now researching the history of Chinese-ancestry folks in southeast Asia little more: Corazon Aquino, the president of the Philippines after the Marcos regime ended, and Asia's first female president, was partly Chinese.
posted by mdonley at 2:16 PM on November 20, 2007


The Quebecois are a racial minority in Canada

No, they are not. They are a linguistic minority. I don't want to derail, but this is an important point about Canada. Here's a column that I think deals with this topic nicely.
posted by Dasein at 2:42 PM on November 20, 2007


Winston Peters (Maori) was deputy PM in NZ from 1994-98

True, though he wasn't directly elected (he got in as part of a coalition deal between NZ First and National - only a small percentage of the electorate would have wanted him as PM at the time).
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:25 PM on November 20, 2007


A couple of things: first, "racial minority" is not a useful term in much (most?) of the rest of the world. In India, religion -- and if you're Hindu, caste -- matters much more than skin colour. Second, "head of state" and "head of government" are very different roles, with one often being a figurehead.

The office of President (Head of State) in India is such a ceremonial position, and there have been three muslim presidents: Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, and Abdul Kalam. The power is with the Head of Government, the Prime Minister. At one time it looked like Sonia Gandhi (an Italian) might become PM.
posted by phliar at 3:45 PM on November 20, 2007


By any definition Quebecois do not count as a "race".
posted by edgeways at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2007


Gordon Brown is Scottish and they are definitely a minority in the UK. Previously in the UK: Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Scottish); Lloyd George (Welsh).
posted by TheRaven at 4:11 PM on November 20, 2007


Fiji has had a large number of minority Indo-Fijian elected officials, including Mahendra Chaudhry, who was Prime Minister until the 2006 coup. Indo-Fijian domination of politics was the main cause of the 1987 military coup.
posted by nomis at 4:11 PM on November 20, 2007


The Quebecois may not be a race, but they could certainly be viewed as an ethnicity, and as such constitute a distinct minority.

Keeping on the Canadian theme, Canada's current head of state (in a practical if not narrow legal sense) is Michaelle Jean, of Haitian (Afro-Carribean) descent... Canada's previous head of state was Adrienne Clarkson, who is of Asian descent.

Of course, they were both appointed rather than elected....
posted by modernnomad at 4:50 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: Ireland's first president was an Anglo-Irish Anglican. In Ireland, at that time, that was a distinct racial minority - in fact during his State funeral most of the government couldn't enter but had to lurk outside the Protestant church where the funeral was being held to avoid being polluted by the unhallowed ground or something. Ireland also had an English-born Protestant President as well.
posted by meehawl at 5:05 PM on November 20, 2007


As pointed out above, in non-monarchy parliamentary governments there's a "head of state" (usually called a "president") and a "head of government" (usually a "prime minister", but known in Germany as "chancellor") and the latter has most of the power.

France is the notable exception, mainly because the Presidency of France as it currently exists was created to DeGaulle's specifications and gave him all the powers he wanted, but none of the responsibilities he didn't want to deal with.

Anyway, the current "head of state", the president, of Iraq is Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, definitely a racial minority. (The prime minister, the "head of government", is Shiite.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:03 PM on November 20, 2007


It's a province not a country, but British Columbia elected Ujjal Dosanjh as premier in 2000. He was born in India.

In looking him up I discovered the fascinating fact that the second premier of B.C., elected in 1872, served in the post under the name Amor De Cosmos, although he had been born plain William Alexander Smith in Nova Scotia. The west coast obviously does strange things to people.
posted by zadcat at 7:54 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Roman Emperor, Septimus Severus, I believe he was born in Africa.
posted by perpetualstroll at 9:45 PM on November 20, 2007


There were a lot of Roman Emperors from a lot of different places, but they weren't chosen by democratic processes. (Even the pre-Empire Roman Republic wasn't a Democracy in the sense that we think of "one man, one vote". Different kinds of citizens of Rome got votes of differing degrees of influence.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:00 PM on November 20, 2007


Best answer: Léon Blum, an Ashkenazic Jew, was the Prime Minister of France three times -- and primarily in the late 1930's, at that.

All prime ministers of Israel to date (except for possibly Yigal Allon?) have been Ashkenazic Jews, who have technically been a numerical minority group in the country since the 1960's.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:29 PM on November 20, 2007


Not a head of state, but Georgina Beyer was the worlds first transexual Mayor, and subsequently member of parliament
posted by scodger at 11:58 PM on November 20, 2007


As a somewhat linked aside, Gordon Brown is also the first UK Prime minister to qualify as disabled, though he apparently does onot regard himself as disabled. (Partial vision in one eye, none in the other.)
posted by biffa at 2:21 AM on November 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kind of on the fringe but the pope is head of state of the Vatican and the holy see. While the position of pope is a absolute monarchy they are initially ellected by the cardinals, most who represent ethnic groups that don't match the winner.

zadcat writes "In looking him up I discovered the fascinating fact that the second premier of B.C., elected in 1872, served in the post under the name Amor De Cosmos, although he had been born plain William Alexander Smith in Nova Scotia. The west coast obviously does strange things to people."

We've been growing good weed here for a long time.
posted by Mitheral at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2007


The Quebecois may not be a race, but they could certainly be viewed as an ethnicity, and as such constitute a distinct minority.

Keeping on the Canadian theme, Canada's current head of state (in a practical if not narrow legal sense) is Michaelle Jean, of Haitian (Afro-Carribean) descent... Canada's previous head of state was Adrienne Clarkson, who is of Asian descent.
Actually, Canada's technical "Head of State" is still the Queen of England, and the Governor-General is her representative. So Michaelle Jean is the acting head of state, I guess. But that role is purely ceremonial, hence the appointment of female minorities.

As for the Quebecois, they are certainly a linguistic minority (around which there is continued strife) but I want to stress they aren't really analogous to a racial minority at all. I agree that Quebec has a distinct culture, but Quebec isn't historically lacking a seat at the political and social table or even from any official definitions of "Canadian". French is one of our official languages. Wilfrid Laurier's on the $5 bill. Since 1950 Canada has had 5 PMs who are/were from Quebec (though not all of them have been francophones): Louis St.-Laurent, Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien, and Paul Martin.
posted by SoftRain at 1:41 PM on November 21, 2007


Paul Martin was from Windsor, Ontario, and while his family was francophone, his French was so bad, they sent him to boarding school in Quebec.

It'd be pushing it to call him either quebecois or francophone. Or a minority of any kind (except maybe "con").
posted by QIbHom at 8:22 PM on November 21, 2007


Fuji elected its first ethnic (Indian) prime minister in 2000. A coup very quickly followed.
posted by electriccynic at 8:09 AM on November 23, 2007


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