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Where Parody Ends and Politics Begin: Comedians Running for Office

Homens da Luta on Optimus Alive music festival, 2011. Photo by José Goulão on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Homens da Luta at Optimus Alive music festival, 2011. Photo by José Goulão on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The well-known musical parody group Homens da Luta (Men of Struggle) from Portugal have turned their Facebook page, with more than half a million followers, into the online front of an electoral campaign for this year's municipal elections.

The group has become notably famous for its improvisational comedy and musical street performances in the anti-austerity protests that have taken place in the country since early 2011, and later received a boost from an appearance in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011. In their performances, they parody revolutionary tunes while satirizing historical characters and invoking the term “struggle” as much as they can.

Now, one of the two brothers who lead the band, Nuno Duarte ”Jel”, the nickname can be read as “hair gel”, is running for mayor of Cascais, one of the richest municipalities in Portugal, a coastal city just 30 kilometers west of the capital of Lisbon.

While the band mobilized and entertained masses in Portugal, for some critics, like João Silva Jordão, the “false resistance” of Homens da Luta [pt] has been a symbol of ”the decay of the political class” and one of the factors that has helped “the Portuguese people to remain in a dizzying state of apathy”:

Um desses factores é precisamente a tendência para ridicularizar todos os que tentam ativamente questionar o sistema, e sobretudo, os que mostram raiva e verdadeira indignação contra um sistema político, financeiro e económico que é estruturalmente desenhado para manter a população subjugada e confusa. E o exponente maior desta tendência são, em Portugal, os ‘Homens da Luta’.

One of these factors is precisely the tendency to ridicule those who actively try to question the system, and especially those who show true anger and indignation against a political, economic and financial system which is structurally designed to keep the population subdued and confused. And the greatest exponent of this trend are, in Portugal, the ‘Men of Struggle'.

Democracy, parodied

In the Mexican city of Xalapa, a cat candidate, Candigato (Candicat), didn't make it to the mayor's seat last June, but he gathered more than 160 thousands likes on his Facebook page.

In the Mexican city of Xalapa, a cat candidate, El Candigato Morris, didn't make it to the mayor's seat last June, but he gathered more than 160,000 likes on his Facebook page.

The trend of eccentric personas running for election is not new, but their success might be speeding up with social media.

For example, take Italian comedian Beppe Grillo and the political party he founded in 2009, the Five Star Movement, that won 25.55 percent of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies in the 2013 general election. Or Jón Gnarr, a popular comedic actor from Iceland with more than 72,000 followers on Facebook, who was elected mayor of the capital city Reykjavík in 2010. The humorous video of the campaign of the party he founded, The Best Party, went viral on YouTube.

In Brazil, more than 50 clowns ran as candidates in the 2012 municipal elections. The phenomenon followed the election of the popular clown-musician Tirica for a seat in Congress “with more votes than any other candidate in the [2010] elections,” the BBC reported. His name became a worldwide trending topic [pt] on Twitter, and the video of his campaign on YouTube has been watched more than 6.8 million times. He used Twitter (@tiririca2222, with 209,414 followers today) and Facebook (about 61,000 today), to disseminate his political slogans, such as:

O que é que faz um Deputado Federal? Na realidade eu não sei. Mas vote em mim que eu te conto. Vote no Tiririca, pior do que tá não fica.

What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don't know. But vote for me and I will find out for you! Vote Tiririca, it can't get any worse.

One common ingredient among these particularly comic candidates is huge success on social media – even prior to becoming conventional political actors. In fact, their online popularity is often seen as appealing by political parties, who in turn invite them to run for elections together, as was the case of Homens da Luta and the invitation from the Portuguese Labour Party (PTP, in Portuguese).

A post on the website Plox speaks about that phenomenon [pt] in Brazil, pointing out Tiririca's affiliation with the Party of the Republic:

pois um bom candidato é um “puxador” que além de se eleger poderá render mais cadeiras legislativas para a legenda e, assim, ajudar a eleger colegas do partido. O Partido Republicano (PR), de Tiririca, é uma das siglas mais incentivadoras do humor na política.

because a good candidate is a “puller” who besides being elected may yield more legislative seats for the legend and thus help elect party colleagues. The Republic Party (PR), of Tiririca, is one of the acronyms that promotes the most humor in politics.

Society of Spectacle 2.0

According to analysts on Brazil quoted by the BBC, the rise of popularity of this type of electoral celebrities may reflect disillusion with mainstream politicians. The fact is that contemporary political processes are now being fueled by heated campaigns taking place in the new agoras of today's hyper connected world: social media.

The subject has been addressed in a seminar organized by the Cásper Líbero Faculty in São Paulo on “communication and politics in the society of spectacle” (a reference to Guy Debord's The Society of Spectacle (1967), a critique of citizens as mere passive spectators “who have been drugged by spectacular images”).

At the seminar of 2012, Electoral Campaigns and Political Process in the Society of Spectacle [pt], researcher Synésio Cônsolo Filho, argued [pt] that:

nas redes sociais virtuais a comunicação assume um caráter imagético, marcado pelo entretenimento e dispersão de ideias

in virtual social networks communication plays an imaging role, marked by entertainment and the dispersion of ideas

Blogger Marcelo Ariel from Santos in the state of São Paulo also made a link between the spectacularization of the electoral process and the elections result in his region:

Nenhum dos candidatos discutiu a fundo o ‘mito da governabilidade', modos de neutralizar o tráfico de influência e o clientelismo, de superar a ‘política de eventos’ e o pior, cada um dos candidatos se apresentou como um evento em si mesmo.

None of the candidates has discussed in depth the ‘myth of governability', ways of neutralizing the influence peddling, patronage, ways to overcome the ‘politics of events’ and – even worse – each candidate presented himself as an event in him/herself.

Still, in Portugal Homens da Luta, or Cascais na Linha (Cascais in the line, or in order, a play with words) as their Facebook page has been renamed to follow the motto of the independent candidacy, have turned a bit more sober and are doing what they can to convince voters without forgetting the cheer. Posts on their Facebook wall often attract hundreds of reactions. They create short videos presenting their ideas for the city, mixing humour with some concrete proposals that they promise to realize if elected.

The vote will take place on September 29, 2013 in Portugal. About 1,500 candidates are running for 308 municipalities.

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