Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lessons from an "American" presidential election

(I have sent this across to the editor. Yet another column that draws from many of my blog-posts.)

The stereotypical image of the United States in the rest of the world is that we are not interested in them, unless it serves our selfish interests. That image lends itself to the humorous tongue-in-cheek line that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. On top of such a disinterest, the current presidential election season has turned out to be quite a soap opera mixed with reality entertainment, with a script that is sometimes even more colorful than what television offers. Thus, it is quite possible that we have been completely oblivious to another “American” presidential election, which was held in Peru.


The recently concluded contest in Peru is fascinating for one important reason—immigration. Peru is a Spanish-speaking country in South America and, therefore, we might expect to see the last names that will be familiar to us as “Spanish” as is the case in the neighboring former Spanish colonies. In Bolivia, the leader is Evo Morales. Ecuador’s president is Rafael Correa. And in Colombia, it is Juan Santos who heads the government. It might, therefore, surprise many of us here in the US that the winner of the election in Peru, which concluded in early June, was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who will officially take over on July 28th.

The Peruvian winner having a Polish last name, Kuczynski, is only one half of the immigration story. The other half is the candidate who lost—Keiko Fujimori. How many among us would have ever imagined political leaders in a South American country having Polish and Japanese last names?

The names Kuczynski and Fujimori reflect the immigration from Europe and Japan to Peru. The 41-year old Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who disgraced himself after a decade in office and is now behind bars. The senior Fujimori's parents immigrated to Peru from Japan. Pedro Kuczynski is, interestingly enough, the same age as Alberto Fujimori—77 years. Kuczynski's parents came to Peru at about the same time that Fujimori's parents emigrated from Japan. Kuczynski's Jewish father and his Swiss mother, fled Berlin after Hitler came to power.

Fujimori versus Kuczynski in a Spanish speaking South American country is one awesome example of the wonderfully globalized cultures that characterize our contemporary existence. We need to pause and appreciate the extraordinariness of this level of democracy, given the long history of humans organizing themselves based on their tribal identities and treating the “others” with nothing but animosity and deep-seated suspicion.

Both Kuczynski and Fujimori have extensive connections to the US as well. A Princeton graduate, Kuczynski spent quite a few years here in the US working in various financial institutions, most notably at the World Bank. Fujimori earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees here—from Boston University and Columbia University. The US can, therefore, rightfully claim to have played influential roles in shaping the minds of the two Peruvian leaders.

We can expect a lot more like the Peruvian story, thanks to people moving around in the world, and mixing with the “natives.” In India, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi almost became the country’s prime minister in 2004, after leading her party to a huge victory in the national elections. She stepped aside for a number of political reasons, even though the constitution of India—unlike the constitution of the United States—does not explicitly disqualify an immigrant from holding the highest elected office in the country.

In the United Kingdom, Sadiq Aman Khan, was elected London’s Mayor in May 2016. Khan’s parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan. A Muslim son of immigrants was democratically elected to one of the most high profile public offices in Britain, while many here in the US want to close the door on immigration and on Muslims!

Of course, in 2008, we too elected to the highest office a person with an unusual name—Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan. However, instead of wholeheartedly showcasing to the world the election and the winner as American symbols of democracy and humanity, many Americans, unfortunately, spent an enormous amount of time and money discrediting the President’s eligibility itself. What a contrast to Peruvians who enthusiastically embraced the Polish and Japanese roots of their presidential candidates!

The Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, who lost the presidential elections to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, wrote that "the women and men who brave the Straits of Gibraltar or the Florida Keys or the electric fences of Tijuana or the docks of Marseilles in search of work, freedom, and a future should be received with open arms.” The contest between Kuczynski and Fujimori exemplifies the “open arms” in Peru. I wonder what our own presidential elections will convey to the world about our arms.

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