Politicians are a bit clowns, and democracy has always had many histrionics. However, for the democratic opera to remain on stage, the public needs to take it with a minimum of seriousness so as not lose respect. In politics, as in any other form of entertainment, power depends on perception. In other words, one can be a clown, but not look like one… too much.
In Mexico, where political parties and the system, in general, are facing a deep credibility crisis, the growing presence of candidates straight out of TV shows reflects not only the erosion of their own structures but also the erosion of their legitimacy in the eyes of citizens, now betting on an easy (but potentially perilous) path to regain the social support they have not earned in their own right.
Running buffoons, athletes, and singers may save the parties in the short term, but they are poisoning the system and further deepening the roots of the discredit and cynicism that fueled the crisis in the first place.
Just like “Sábado Gigante”
The political circus seems literally that: a circus full of clowns. On January 25th, Movimiento Ciudadano presented singer Francisca Viveros Barradas “Paquita la del Barrio” as its candidate for local deputy in the state of Veracruz. Her presentation? A press conference with three songs and a statement as honest as it was disturbing. In her own words: “I don’t know why I came here… I only know that there are people behind me who are going to teach me how to handle this matter”.
It’s not just Paquita. Alfredo Adame, telenovela actor, will compete in Mexico City with the new Progressive Social Networks party, which will also present as candidates wrestlers Tinieblas, Carístico, and Blue Demon Jr., as well as the former singer of Los Ángeles Azules, Héctor Hernández, who is running for the populous mayoralty of Iztapalapa.
Out of the “idiot box” will also jump into politics singer Vicente Fernández Jr., candidate for congressman; actress Gabriela Goldsmith, now Morena’s candidate in the primaries; former Miss Universe Lupita Jones, who will head the opposition alliance for the governorship of Baja California; and the popular Carlos Villagrán, “Kiko” from the neighborhood of El Chavo, who is running for governor or mayor of Querétaro (whichever works) for the Independent Querétaro Party.
“I don’t know why I came here… I only know that there are people behind me who are going to teach me how to handle this matter”. Paquita said it, but it applies to thousands of candidates who will compete to become local and federal congress memebrs, mayors and municipal presidents, and even governors. Many of them arrive in the political arena without any preparation, turned into puppets of their own parties or of other power groups with less clear interests.
This happens in all countries, but in Mexico there are greater incentives to do so, because the Mexican party system is designed to place high barriers to entry into the political market, accompanied by immense benefits for those organizations that manage to stay in the game.
Unlike other countries, where a handful of signatures is enough to register a party, in Mexico the process for the creation of new political parties is a window that opens every 6 years and requires demonstrating the support of more than 260,000 people with voter credentials in hand and surviving the intense audits of the National Electoral Institute. More than a hundred organizations tried during the most recent cycle, but only three succeeded (those linked to union organizations and President López Obrador’s political alliance).
Once registered, parties receive multi-million dollar budgets, but maintaining them is not easy. To preserve their registration, Mexican parties need at least 3% of the vote in each electoral cycle, a truly titanic task even with corporate backing.
In this environment, and especially for the small parties, presenting showbiz candidates is almost mandatory to survive, and even the big parties are increasingly resorting to “fresh” profiles, even if they do not have the necessary preparation to do a good job.
The result is that the Legislative Branch and city halls are filled with a mixture of social leaders (petty businesspeople, artists or activists) without any background for the position, and party bureaucrats, without any charisma or power of their own. All are controlled with an iron fist by the party leadership: the artists and “leaders” obey because without the script that the party sends them they would not know what to do; and the bureaucrats obey because without the blessing of the party they would not be able to win even the choice of which movie to watch on Netflix.
Three dangers posed by clowns
By filling political contests with clowns who have no idea what they are doing, people will stop taking the electoral system seriously, which erodes the legitimacy of all participants, makes the system more fragile, and generates conditions for demagogues to come to power, riding on the growing indignation and cynicism of the average voter.
These clowns, even when they win, do not govern. Those who truly hold power are much shadier figures, for whom no one voted and whom no one oversees. Such hidden interests are part of political life worldwide, but when the murkiness increases beyond the maximum tolerable, the entire system is put at risk.
Turning elections into a clown’s election causes parties to make even less effort to train politicians who have leadership and knowledge of their own. The leadership has understood that it is easier to control an external candidate who has no idea (and an internal one who has no talent or strength of his own). This translates into increasingly pyramidal, more “disciplined,” and more centralized power dynamics.
And yes, the “artists” may get votes, but they do not respond to the real need for citizen representation. Voters may not articulate it in words, but they note that the parties are making a mockery of them, putting clowns on the ballot. And eventually, society is going to take it out on them. Their revenge will be a guffaw that will bring down the whole system. Sooner or later.