Jokers in the pack

The problem with political jokes is they get elected. Or so they say.

If we look at two democracies close to us, this may well be the case. Is there anything fitting of the gravitas of leadership, in the figures of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?

The problem is, they don’t see themselves as the buffoons they are, and instead live in a deluded state of self importance. Strictly speaking, of course, neither was actually elected: Donald was a fair way behind in the national popular vote, and Boris got to power through internal party machinations.

But it is true – too often, jokes do get elected. Where’s the precedent in this?

Perhaps if we look at that older democracy, Iceland, we may find an answer. Jon Gnar is an Icelandic comedian. He started a joke party, primarily to satirise Iceland’s reaction to the Global Financial crisis, and then surprise, surprise, he was handily elected as mayor of Reykjavik, the country’s biggest city. By all accounts he did a decent job of it. And best of all, displaying an absence of hubris that Boris and Trump could well emulate, he decided not to stand for re-election. One term was enough. The funny-ness lasted only so long.

In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenksy was elected president, winning in a landslide with 73% of the vote against the incumbent, in a national election in April 2019. Zelensky entered the race with high recognition – he’s the star of a long-running comedy series, Servant of the People, on TV that has him acting the role of a humble fellow (a school teacher) who sort-of accidentally becomes the president after a political rant of his goes viral on social media.

Now life has followed art, laughingly, and he’s become the real thing. He said he wanted “to bring professional, decent people to power.” Mostly, his real life campaign was conducted on social media, with Zelensky clearly avoiding the traditional routes to power.

Trouble is, he has inherited severe problems in the country. Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea peninsula region of the Ukraine in 2014. A complicating factor is that – apparently – the majority of people in the Crimea wanted to be connected to Russia, rather than the Ukraine. The lumping of the Crimea with Ukraine in 1954, as part of a Soviet Republic had long been contested by the people of the Crimea, and especially in the city of Sevastopol.

Zelensky’s campaign was based on his personal charisma, and his anti-corruption message. His slogan: “No promises, no apologies,” was a neat cop-out of the usual political grandstanding.

He promised to rid the country of its dependence on Russian oligarchs (is there any other kind of oligarch?). To complicate matters, Zelensky himself is more Russian than Ukrainian, having grown up in a Russian-speaking environment, and conversing in Ukrainian only as his second language. Still, he has said that “the border is the only thing Russia and Ukraine have in common.”

In July 2019, in the parliamentary election, his Servant of the People Party won the first single party majority in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. So it seems they’re not going anywhere soon. He’s talked to Putin on the phone, and has tried to arrange an exchange of prisoners held by both side, which has happened. He’s publicly stated that he considers Putin “an enemy.” This real world he finds himself in, is a far cry from comedy, I’ll say.

Marjan Sarec, a satirist was elected Slovenian Prime Minister in August 2018. I wonder how people knew whether he was talking seriously or sarcastically, during the campaign. A valid question.

Jimmy Morales, the current president of Guatemala was previously a comic actor.

So they’re out there, the political jokes that get elected. But I reckon they find the reality a far cry from the comedy they’d prefer. That’s life, I suppose.