NEW DELHI—India has a long history of being led by political dynasties, and like the United States still battles sexism and racism. So for many Indians, the latest U.S. presidential campaign is something of a wonder.
An African-American stands a good chance of winning his party’s nomination. A woman is his primary rival. And, most impressive of all, she appears to be increasingly handicapped—rather than helped—by the fact that her husband was once president.
Sen. Hillary Clinton “has played the dynastic card a lot, and it’s worked against her,” marveled Seema Mustafa, a longtime political editor with India’s Asian Age newspaper. “That would never happen in India, where it always works for you.”
This year’s U.S. election campaign, with its groundbreaking crop of candidates and its focus on international concerns like Iraq, is reshaping the world’s view of the United States, political analysts say. In some places, officials see the candidacies of Clinton, fellow Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain as a chance to heal rifts with the U.S. over such issues as the war on terror and global warming.
Many people abroad are surprised to find the United States is perhaps not as racist as they had imagined. Others, impressed at the lively campaign, are regaining faith in American democracy.
Concerns in recent years that the U.S. has used torture against terrorism suspects, has continued to back authoritarian rulers in nations like Pakistan and has backed away from international institutions like the United Nations has blemished the United States’ reputation abroad, experts say. The election campaign, some believe, has made a different impression.
“It’s an exciting race, an example of participative democracy and unprecedented mobilization,” El Pais, one of Spain’s leading daily newspapers, wrote in an editorial in the wake of the Super Tuesday primaries.
Across much of the world, Obama has been a source of particular fascination, not least because of his meteoric rise from relative unknown to Democratic front-runner.
In Kenya, where Obama’s father was born and where his grandmother still scatters corn for her chickens in a remote village, the junior Illinois senator is seen as a home-team candidate. Radio talk shows have dissected the primaries in the kind of grueling detail one expects from beltway wonks—except all the callers are speaking Swahili.
Although many in Africa credit the Bush administration for massively funding efforts to fight HIV-AIDS there, McCain and his former Republican primary rivals have gotten little more than cursory coverage in Africa’s press. Clinton has been more popular, her name tapping a deep well of fondness that many Africans still hold for her husband, who among other things apologized for U.S. inaction during the Rwandan genocide.
But Obama “gives us hope that if America can leave its racist past behind and elect a black president, then maybe African governments can do the same—peacefully resolve our own ethnic and tribal problems,” said Fred Aja Agwu, a political analyst with the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos.
In Mexico, former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda wrote that an Obama election would have symbolic importance for the world, even more than a historic Clinton victory.
“It isn’t that the very possible arrival of a woman to the presidency lacks importance,” Castaneda wrote in a much-discussed newspaper column. “But just as nothing is fair in life, ethnic origin trumps gender.”
Israelis, on the other hand, for the most part find Obama worrying and have questioned his commitment to “pro-Israeli” policy compared with his rivals Clinton and McCain.
Still, liberal Israelis call his candidacy a breath of fresh air that would be well-emulated in Israel, where the political landscape is littered with old faces.
“There are those in Israel who are envious of the hope Americans have not yet lost,” wrote Yossi Sarid, a former left-wing parliament member and columnist for the daily Haaretz. “Where is our Obama?”
In much of the world, enthusiasm for the U.S. race focuses not so much on one candidate as the fact that Americans seem ready to show the door to President Bush.
Most opinion polls in Europe show Obama as the favored U.S. candidate; in Britain, Clinton is leading. The region has traditionally favored Democratic contenders but has warmed to McCain as well. Robin Shepherd, an analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank, called him “the kind of Republican who can cross the trans-Atlantic divide.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Europeans is how well Obama has done so far in the race, his successes at odds with European notions of the U.S. as a deeply racist society.
Many Pakistanis agree with Europeans that the best choice to run the world’s remaining superpower is somebody other than Bush, whose administration is accused of meddling in Pakistani affairs by encouraging an aggressive policy in the war on terror.
In a nation that just voted for change of its own—the party of President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally, was roundly defeated in parliamentary elections last month—more than a few people like Clinton because of fondness for her husband’s administration, others focusing on her gender.
“Being a woman, she may have a soft heart for what’s happening in the world,” said Aqeel Yaseen, 27, a journalist for an Urdu-language daily newspaper.
Some Pakistanis are wary of Obama because of his expressed willingness to consider attacking al-Qaida in their country if the Pakistani government cannot or does not do so.
Russians largely see Obama as their best bet, particularly after a quip by Clinton in January suggesting that President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, “by definition ... doesn’t have a soul.”
But for many abroad, the race itself, regardless of its winner, is a revelation.
“I think it’s pretty revolutionary,” said Anuradha Chenoy, a professor of international relations at Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi. “There’s a gradual strengthening of democracy in the U.S. if so many people can accept both a black and a woman candidate. It’s amazing.”
(Chicago Tribune correspondents Paul Salopek in Johannesburg, Tom Hundley in London, Christine Spolar in Rome, Oscar Avila in Havana, Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem, Kim Barker in Islamabad and Alex Rodriguez in Moscow contributed to this report.)