Europe’s Joke Parties Laugh All the Way to the Top
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These parties started out as satirists. Now the joke is on their mainstream rivals.
The July 2018 graffiti on a decrepit Hungary hospital wall had Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sitting on Thomas the Tank Engine, a reference to an expensive, underused vintage train line constructed in 2016 in his hometown. The graffiti was quickly removed, but its creators got what they wanted: The wall finally got a new coat of paint.
It was one of a series of stunts the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP) has pulled off, mocking those in power. But what started as a student prank more than a decade ago is transforming into something much bigger. The party now boasts several thousand activists — they call themselves “passivists” — and this year has for the first time emerged as a serious political player in the country. It isn’t alone.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, satirical parties and comedian candidates are gaining ground, vying for power or grabbing it, fueled by voters’ deep dissatisfaction with mainstream parties. In Ukraine, a popular comedian called Volodymyr Zelensky has just taken the lead in polls for the country’s March presidential election, putting himself ahead of second-placed political veteran Yulia Tymoshenko and sitting President Petro Poroshenko. On television, Zelensky is already president — on his show, he plays a humble history teacher who is elected president after one of his political rants against traditional parties goes viral.
We have to thank the other opposition parties [because] they have taken the role of the joke party away from us.
Gergo Kovács, founder, Two-Tailed Dog Party
In Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, rose to power after 2018’s general elections. It had started as a joke-protest movement with what it called a Vaffanculo Day (F*ck Off Day) in 2007. And back in Hungary, the Two-Tailed Dog are growing from strength to strength. When they contested their first-ever general elections in April 2018 — their field of candidates included a human-sized chicken — they won just 1.7 percent of total votes, short of the 5 percent they needed to enter parliament. But since then, the party has more than doubled its support, according to polls, and its 4 to 5 percent voter share is now at par or even greater than the support several current parliamentary parties enjoy.
“We have to thank the other opposition parties [because] they have taken the role of the joke party away from us,” quips Gergő Kovács, the founder and leader of the MKKP.
Joke parties have had some success in the past too. The Polish Beer Lovers’ Party entered Poland’s parliament in 1990 but soon fell apart. The Icelandic Best Party won the Reykjavik mayor’s post in 2010 but was disbanded in 2014. There are others that made a public splash but didn’t win. French comedian Michel Colucci, popularly known as Coluche, was polling at 16 percent in the country’s 1980 presidential elections and only withdrew under pressure from mainstream politicians, including François Mitterrand, who accused him of splitting the left vote. In the U.K., comedian Al Murray contested in the 2015 parliamentary elections against the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage. Murray didn’t win, but neither did Farage. And in the U.S., there’s Vermin Supreme, the performance artist who wears a boot as a hat and has tried to contest every presidential election since 2004 despite never receiving more than a handful of votes in primaries.
But the simultaneous political rise of multiple joke parties and comedians in Central and Eastern Europe marks a break from the isolated instances of the past. That they’re already well-known, often speak truth to power in a way ordinary folks can understand, make people laugh and are charismatic public speakers gives comedians and the parties they lead an advantage over other political outsiders seeking to disrupt the mainstream. Equally though, the fleeting successes of some of the earlier efforts by joke parties offer a cautionary tale to the new groups — that initial recognition and adulation can get you only so far. That isn’t lost on Two-Tailed Dog, which began with slogans like “Free beer” but is now often the most vocal political force against Orbán’s increasingly repressive policies.
“The MKKP rightly recognizes those cases when humor is not an adequate answer,” says Áron Varga, a Budapest-based political scientist. He cites the party’s response when the Hungarian Parliament passed a law in October banning homeless people from the streets.
Most opposition parties only issued statements of condemnation. A passivist from Two-Tailed Dog, on the other hand, donated an empty plot of land she owns, and the party plans to build a moderate-size trailer park for the homeless. It was an example, say experts, of how traditional opposition parties appear in overwhelming disarray since their 2018 defeat to Orban and his party, the Fidesz, for the third time since 2010. The MKKP, on the other hand, highlights the government’s absurdities by demonstrating “what should have been the state’s responsibility,” says Varga. The country’s education system is a mess, so Two-Tailed Dog is framing free courses for students. Many hospitals don’t have soap and toilet paper. So, the party “steals” these into hospitals, says Kovács.
“The main difference between us and the other parties is that we try to do something instead of just talking about the problems,” Kovács says. “This should not be our job, but sometimes we can force the government in this way.”
The state’s dysfunction is also what’s providing fertile ground for similar parties and candidates across other countries, say experts. In Ukraine, polls suggest voters are disenchanted with corruption under President Petro Poroshenko. And while Tymoshenko leads polls, millions appear to trust Zelensky, who, according to some surveys, could seriously challenge the front-runner if the presidential election goes to a second round.
Success isn’t guaranteed for these parties and candidates. Zelensky’s popularity is partly because he’s a dark-horse candidate — but that could also prove a liability because Ukrainians “do not know anything” about his platform, says Olexy Haran, professor and political scientist at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. For now, he says, Zelensky’s principal goal may be to increase the popularity of his Servant of the People Party, named after his TV show. That’s similar to how the M5S started in Italy, but there’s a difference: Zelensky’s party has no infrastructure or membership at the moment. “Right now, we have a candidate … [with] a party which does not function, but both of them have real support,” says Haran.
For the moment, the MKKP’s principal support base of “well-educated urban youth” is also “not enough for [a] majority” in Parliament, says Varga, who, however, does see the party gaining entry into the parliament after the next election.
And the M5S’ experience in Italy shows how ruling as a party in office is entirely different from using protests to come to power. Since its March election victory, the movement has lost voters to its junior coalition partner, the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League: While the M5S has lost almost 10 percent support since then, the League has gained more than 10 percent and now is the most popular party in Italy. “The [Five Star] Movement’s main idea is honesty, and it’s difficult to stick to this founding value in [a] governmental position,” says Domenico Giannino, an international law lecturer at INSEEC University in London.
Still, the political gains for these joke parties and candidates are only expected to mount. Giannino doesn’t expect the M5S to “go down in a tragic way” in the May European Parliamentary elections. Two-Tailed Dog also stands a real chance at winning a seat in the European elections. This time, the party plans to field more conventional candidates — so no human-size chickens. And Zelensky’s appeal is only rising — he had 10 percent support in polls two months ago. None of this appeared possible just a year ago, and it’s a shift that brings out the wit in Kovács. “Our initial goal was that we earn money without work,” he says. “Now we work a lot and [have] got no money.”