Roving thoughts and provocations

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Politically Incorrect: Brazil’s Clown-Elect

An election ad for Tiririca showing the slogan “Because It Can’t Get Any Worse.”

Brazil is a country given to extremes. It’s a nation that combines rapid technological development with the continuity of popular traditions, urban growth and modernization with long-established rural culture. Such contrasts also come through in politics. On the one hand, the country is known for its huge voting population of 135 million and its secure and very fast electronic vote-counting system: in this year’s October 3 national elections, all the votes had been counted just five hours after the polls closed—without any hint of fraud or of results being challenged. On the other hand, the candidates get more bizarre by the year. This year’s novelty act was Tiririca, the stage name of Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva—a singer, composer, comedian, and clown. Tiririca recently joined the somewhat obscure Partido da República [PR] and was promptly elected federal deputy with the largest number of votes ever recorded in the state of São Paulo.

In Brazil, voting is compulsory (except for people over 70 or between the ages of sixteen and eighteen), which means that the vast majority of the population has to turn up at the polls or face various sanctions. Thus the only way to express disenchantment is to cast a blank vote or vote for a complete outsider. This might go some way to explaining the surprising choices made by Brazilian voters in recent elections. For example, many pundits were shocked by the failure of leading presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff to win in the first round of voting; she was, after all, the candidate of the Workers’ Party and backed by the immensely popular outgoing president, Lula da Silva, and all the opinion polls had assumed she would be a shoo-in.

O Cruzeiro
Cacareco, a Rhinoceros, was elected to the São Paulo city council in 1959.

But the unpredictable behavior of Brazilian voters can also lead to more baffling outcomes. In 1959, for example, Cacareco, a placid, middle-aged rhinoceros at the São Paulo zoo, was voted onto the city council, having won over 100,000 votes—and this is only the most famous case in Brazil’s long history of “protest votes.” Cacerco has been succeeded by other non-existent candidates, along with candidates from outside the sphere of professional politics, such as soccer players, fashion designers, TV stars, brash pop singers, faded ex-models, and various C-list celebrities with zero knowledge or experience of political life.

Even within this tradition, the clown Tiririca’s resounding election victory—he won 1,348,295 votes, or 6.35 percent of the São Paulo state electorate—is something of a conundrum. Obviously, many voters gave him their vote as a way of punishing Brazil’s politicians, but it’s also clear that there was nothing naive or spontaneous about his candidacy. The Partido da República poured a lot of money into the campaign, intending to use Tiririca’s popularity to spur the election of its other candidates. Indeed, because of Brazil’s complex system of proportional representation, the party was able to use Tiririca’s votes to gain three more seats in Congress. Among these is the controversial former police chief Protógenes Pinheiro Queiroz, who has led several high-profile corruption cases, but who is himself being investigated for going beyond his authority.

But that is another story. As for Tiririca, he is certainly not just another Cacareco, and his electoral success also sheds light on how loopholes in Brazil’s electoral rules can be manipulated. It’s worth pointing out that a lot of those who voted for him did so because they like him and identify with him. Tiririca has worked as a clown since he was eight years old and was given his nickname—Tiririca or Grumpy—by his mother because he was such a querulous child. (The names Tiririca and Cacareco, by the way, have a similarly comical resonance in Portuguese.) He initially gained a following by appearing regularly in public squares and on improvised stages as an amateur actor, touring the towns in the state of Pernambuco, performing sketches and songs and delighting his audiences with his risqué jokes and comments. When he was discovered by a record company in 1996, he brought out a few CDs and notched up a number of hits, several of which had overtly racist and off-color lyrics. From being a phenomenon with a following mainly in his home region in the Northeast of Brazil, Tiririca went on to take part in various popular TV shows. Politically incorrect jokes have a popular following in Brazil, and Tiririca is a specialist in the genre. (One of his greatest successes is called “You must see her hair,” about a black lady woman who has such terrible hair that you can wash the dishes with it. He also says that she stinks.) But this doesn’t seem to deter voters.

Tiririca’s rise from obscurity to national celebrity happened very fast, and maybe the sheer speed of that rise partly explains his election to the post of federal deputy for São Paulo. There is, though, something paradoxical about the situation. São Paulo is, after all, Brazil’s wealthiest and most powerful state and, hardly coincidentally, it also has the largest electoral college: 22.3 percent of all voters. Nevertheless, it has elected a comedian whose campaign slogan advertised his total ignorance of and even indifference to the practicalities of politics: “What does a federal deputy do? Frankly, I have no idea. But vote for me, and I’ll tell you” or “It can’t get any worse, so vote for Tiririca.” There were attempts to oppose his candidacy, which was considered an affront to the National Congress, but they were set aside.

Tiririca won a seat in congress in an election in which many career politicians, from various political factions and diverse parts of the country, failed to be re-elected. The long list includes Tasso Jereissati (twice Governor and former Senator for the northeastern state of Ceará); Artur Virgílio (former Senator, Federal Deputy and Prefect of the northwestern state of Amazonas); Marco Maciel (Vice-President under Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Governor, Senator, State and Federal Deputy for the state of Pernambuco), Luciana Genro (former State and Federal Deputy in Rio Grande do Sul, and a well-known militant in left-wing socialist movements); and José Genoíno (former State Deputy for São Paulo).

Have Brazilian voters simply grown weary of politics or is this their way of protesting? Whatever the truth of the matter, the October 3 election was remarkable for putting an end to a number of political careers and bringing to the fore certain popular and charismatic figures with no previous political experience or, indeed, evidence of any interest in politics. Nor is the parade of unexpected events over yet. According to the Ministry in charge of electoral law, Tiririca should be classified as illiterate, after making what a report on him described as “spelling errors.” (When signing his autograph he just makes a circle and never writes his name.) Brazilian law may give illiterate citizens the right to vote, but candidates for public office must be able to read and write.

This thorny problem remains unresolved and, meanwhile, voters must await the second round of voting in the presidential elections. In the first round, Dilma Rousseff’s Worker’s Party gained a majority in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies, with 73 percent of the seats. They will have to wait until the end of October to find out whether or not they can also claim the presidency. Tiririca still intends to go to Brasília, the Brazilian capital and seat of government, as a democratically elected politician. Until that happens, and since he’s only human, he has returned to the stage and to his public, which has not, it seems, abandoned him.

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