What a Brazilian clown reveals about the crisis in legislatures

Mon Jan 21, 2013 12:09pm GMT

1 of 2. Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, better known by his clown name Tiririca, gestures during the inauguration ceremony for deputies at Brazil's National Congress in Brasilia February 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

(Reuters) - Cross-dressing, semi-literate, potty-mouthed clowns aren't supposed to run for Congress. And if they do, they sure as hell aren't supposed to win. But Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva—better known by his clown name Tiririca (Grumpy)—broke those rules, and several more, when he ran for Brazil's House of Deputies in 2010. Campaigning under the slogan "It Can't Get Any Worse" and wearing a women's blonde wig, Tiririca took satirical aim at Brazil's reviled Congress, where gridlock and corruption are rife. His campaign ads were hugely popular on television and the Internet. "What does a federal congressman do? Truly, I don't know. But vote for me, and I'll find out for you," he promised in one ad. In another, he threatened to kill himself if he didn't win. In still another, he vowed: "Elect me so I can help the neediest—especially my own family."

More than 7 million YouTube hits later, Tiririca was elected - with the most votes of any candidate in the history of Brazil's lower house. The political elite howled in anger, accusing the electorate of playing an infantile and reckless practical joke on a hallowed institution. "Is this a protest vote, or proof that we live in an ignorant society?" one pundit asked. Others sneered that Tiririca, who dropped out of school at age 9 to join a traveling circus, wouldn't be able to pass the basic reading test required to take office (he did—barely). A few weeks later, Tiririca continued to make headlines when he apparently screwed up his first vote in Congress by pressing the wrong button on a bill to raise the minimum wage.

Tiririca's political buffoonery might surprise many Europeans and Americans. After all, they seem to have cornered the market on people who despise their legislatures. The approval rating of the U.S. Congress recently hit an all-time low of 9 percent in one poll, making it less popular than communism, Paris Hilton and even banks. In parts of Europe, the backlash has been harsher still, with parliaments from Greece to the Netherlands to Romania collapsing during the past year. In most cases, the widespread hostility to legislators has been attributed to a merciless mix of austerity measures, tax increases and partisan gridlock that has come to define politics in much of Europe and the United States. Put simply, managing a seemingly never-ending financial crisis is a sure-fire way to piss people off.

How, then, to explain the disdain felt toward legislatures in countries that are booming? The year Tiririca rode the protest vote to victory, Brazil's economy grew a whopping 7.5 percent, its best performance in 25 years. In India, which had been enjoying an exceptional run of growth until recently, the parliament has been described as perhaps the most dysfunctional in six decades of democracy. The speaker of South Africa's legislature got so fed up in May that he publicly berated his colleagues for skipping key votes and drafting unintelligible, unconstitutional laws; a colleague agreed, calling the chamber "boring, dull, and a place of mediocrity." Despite a decade of strong growth and the slow but steady spread of democracy throughout Africa, a respected magazine recently surveyed the continent's politics and asked on its cover: "Do parliaments matter?"

It's tempting to blame all this on a global disenchantment with politicians—and the power elite generally—in this age of Facebook, Twitter and grass-roots activism. Yet the truth is that, in many of these countries, the executive branch remains quite popular, and effective. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff has an approval rating near 80 percent, as voters credit her—and her alone, apparently—for record-low unemployment and high-wage growth. More than 73 percent of Indians describe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as either "average" or "good." The same pattern generally holds in the rich world, where, for example, President Barack Obama's popularity never sank lower than about 38 percent in the United States, even when his colleagues in Congress were plumbing single digits and challenging Fidel Castro (5 percent approval) for "Most Hated" status in America.

This all suggests a worldwide crisis of confidence in legislatures. The consequences go beyond just a clown taking office here and there. Brazil's Congress is so dysfunctional that President Rousseff has built her entire governing strategy around avoiding it as much as possible—even shelving plans for a badly needed reform of the tax code at huge detriment to the economy. Naked obstructionism by Mexico's legislature has suppressed economic growth there for more than a decade. In the United States, the most significant contribution of Congress over the last year could be summed up by the phrase "fiscal cliff." Perhaps most dire of all, the inability of Europe's parliamentary democracies to forge a definitive solution to the euro zone crisis has held the global economy hostage for more than two years.

So what's wrong with legislatures? And, most important, what can be done about them? On these questions, Tiririca's story sheds some light. Not the story of his election so much, but what came afterward: the letdown. "This horrible place," he said in a frank, surprisingly sober interview, "nothing about it works. There are a lot of good people, yes, but the system is broken. The things I've seen here, let me tell you…" His voice started to trail off. Then he laughed. "What can I say? It's a circus."

OH, THE IRONY: TRIRICA WANTED TO BE A SERIOUS CONGRESSMAN

To hear him tell it, his political career was not a joke but a personal quest rooted in a tragic night 21 years ago, when he still worked for a traveling circus in Brazil's violent, impoverished northeast. That night, during a performance, Tiririca's pet monkey freaked out and bit a rich man's daughter. Tiririca knew the incident wouldn't go unanswered. "Where I come from," he says, "the powerful make their own laws, and they hand out their own sentences." Sure enough, a few hours later, a truck pulled up carrying five or six men with torches. They burned the circus to the ground, and Tiririca lost every penny he had.

The next morning, he, his wife and their 2-year-old son hitched a ride in the back of a truck to the nearest city. "I cried a lot," he says, "and I made myself a few promises—which I kept."

The first promise: Never live hand-to-mouth again. So Tiririca expanded his repertoire, and recorded an album of humorous, somewhat edgy songs about the gritty world he grew up in, taking on difficult topics such as prison, fast women and street kids. The album was a nationwide phenomenon, selling more than 1.5 million copies. Tiririca became rich and famous. That, in turn, helped with the second promise: "To try to do right in the world, so others wouldn't suffer like I did."

As his career grew to include TV shows and other lucrative projects, the clown handed out money to his friends and also quietly donated a considerable amount to charity. When his mother suggested he run for Congress, it seemed like a logical next step. "I thought: ‘Man, I'll get there, and I'll be able to help so many people, it'll be awesome.'"

The reality has, of course, been less than awesome. "Nothing gets done, and a lot of people are just here to steal," he complains. But wait—how could this have been news for a man who got elected by lampooning Congress as a den of thieves and fools? Tiririca frowns. "I campaigned as a clown because that is my profession," he says. Just as a doctor might have run on the strength of his medical career, he explains, his natural role was to crack jokes. "But then, once you get here—look, politics is serious, Okay? This is serious. This is about hospitals and schools, and representing the people who voted for you. Damn, man! This is no joke!"

To that end, Tiririca has donned a blazer and tie, and remained resolutely wig-free while Congress is in session. Respected veteran congressional aides staff his office. Even more shocking, especially to his critics, Tiririca is one of just nine deputies—out of 513 total—who has not missed a single vote. "It's the least you can do, man, is show up," he says, shaking his head. "Why these other guys can't do that, I don't understand."

All of this has earned Tiririca an aura. Walking with him through the halls of Congress is like hanging out with Elvis. Elevator operators, random strangers and even fellow legislators constantly stop him to ask for autographs and take pictures of him with their cell phones. On one recent afternoon, a crowd of about 20 lurked outside his office—"Deputy Tiririca," it says on the door. Three leggy young blondes in matching high heels and short leather skirts giggled and said they were there to say hi. They scored 10 minutes with Tiririca in his private office. What did they want? "I don't know," he says softly, his eyes cast downward. "You meet some interesting people in this life."

Such antics—and the fact that Tiririca has failed to say a single word on the chamber floor, much less pass any legislation—has led some peers to question his motives. "I like Tiririca, but come on—let's be honest about why he's here," says Silvio Costa, who has served in Brazil's lower house since 2007. "People voted for him because they had a total disrespect for politics. They said, ‘Since they're all clowns anyway, I'm going to vote for the one who admits to being a clown.' OK, fine. But don't get angry at us when you elect people like that and then the system doesn't work." Costa takes a long drag of his cigarette, and shakes his head in dismay. "And let's all stop treating him like a prophet, OK? If people want to know what's really wrong with Congress, they can take a look at themselves."

Costa was involved in an incident in May that neatly displayed two of the core problems facing legislatures everywhere. The setting: a televised hearing of a congressional commission to investigate corruption allegations against Demostenes Torres, a senator who had gained nationwide fame and adoration for … investigating corruption. Costa was trying to interrogate Torres, but the senator kept invoking his constitutional right to remain silent. "Ah, I know why you're staying quiet," Costa declared, his voice rising with irritation. "Your silence writes your guilt in capital letters. … You say you were a saint. But if heaven exists, you're not going to heaven. Heaven isn't for liars or hypocrites!"

Another senator at the hearing, Pedro Taques, spoke up in Torres' defense: "Look, a senator can't be treated like that," he said. "In fact, nobody should be treated with such indignity. People around the world have died for the constitutional right to remain silent."

After some back-and-forth, Costa appeared to lose it. Red-faced and screaming, he jabbed his finger at Taques: "I won't put up with this garbage!" he thundered, as other congressmen rushed to separate the two men. "You're a hypocrite! A demagogue!" He added some profanities to describe Taques.

Costa issued an apology the next day, but a bleak mood was established for the commission's work. Each session turned up more evidence that Torres—despite posing for years as a righteous crusader, spouting windy statements such as "I won't tolerate bandits!"—had used his influence to benefit a shady tycoon who had gone to jail for running a gambling ring.

And there we have the first big problem facing legislatures around the world: the perception that their members are only out for themselves, and that corruption and abuse of power are always lurking just beneath the surface. From the 2009-10 expenses scandal in Britain's parliament to last year's head-scratching decisions by Australian and Kenyan legislators to award themselves huge pay hikes during times of economic duress, to recent allegations of insider trading involving members of the U.S. Congress, legislators around the world have routinely displayed, at best, an astonishing indifference for what the public will bear—and, at worst, an appalling belief that they are somehow above the law. In Torres' case, the evidence was so overwhelming that his peers had no choice but to act, and they ultimately voted to kick him out of the Senate.

But here's the intriguing twist—Torres' alleged corruption wasn't what seemed to anger Brazilians the most. One more sticky-fingered congressman was hardly a discovery. What left the public disgusted and angry was the near-brawl with Costa, which made the national TV news, every major newspaper and generated more than 10,000 hits on YouTube and an endless barrage of derision on Facebook and Twitter.

That's the second big problem: the notion that, in addition to being thieves, our legislators are incompetent louts who are too busy bickering, making empty speeches or sleeping around to get anything worthwhile done. In America, few people recall that Congress passed a free-trade agreement with South Korea in 2012. Yet almost everybody remembers the congressman who, in 2011, tweeted pictures of his penis to a female admirer and then resigned when they were made public. Similarly, India's parliamentary session of mid-2012 will forever be remembered for opposition members repeatedly interrupting debate to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Singh, permitting only a few hours of productive work over the course of an entire month. Perhaps inevitably, there was also a scuffle involving several MPs. Things got so bad that Singh gave an angry speech on the steps outside Parliament on the last day of the session, lamenting a "wasted" month that had damaged Indian democracy.

Tiririca believes such boorish behavior is the rule in legislatures, not the exception. He says the system is set up to encourage pointless theatrics and confrontations while making serious deliberations nearly impossible. On a tour of the chamber floor late one evening, it was hard not to see his point. A sweaty, balding man was giving a loud speech at a podium—while hundreds of his fellow deputies milled about paying no heed, talking or fiddling with their iPhones. It could easily have been Washington, D.C. "Nobody's listening to that poor man speak! As an entertainer, that terrifies me!" Tiririca exclaimed, cringing. "But you know what? I'll bet you he doesn't care. He's just performing for the cameras anyway, to show people back in his home state that he's working. But you watch," he predicted, "there will be no work tonight." Sure enough, within a few minutes, the chamber failed to muster quorum for a major vote on a forestry bill. There was a collective groan, and the room emptied.

"These stupid rules, how do they make any sense?" Tiririca said, trudging back to his office. "Damn, this whole system is crazy! It has nothing to do with how the world works."

Some people who get paid to think about such things agree with him. Moises Naim, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says legislatures and traditional political parties have been losing relevance for decades now. In a book to be published this spring called The End of Power, Naim points to events as diverse as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Germany's Pirate Party—and, yes, the election of Tiririca—as proof that old-school institutions are in danger of losing their ability to influence events. That's due largely to new technologies. "We are surrounded by innovation in everything except how we govern ourselves," Naim says. "If the system doesn't evolve, this anti-establishment, anti-politician trend will only continue, with unpredictable consequences. Tiririca apparently understands that. Why doesn't everyone else?"

Others, especially those with experience in Congress, say: Hold on—hasn't representative democracy been a consistent instrument of peace and prosperity over the years? Are we really ready to throw out centuries of success because of a decade-long malaise? After all, even in the case of the widely loathed U.S. Congress, it was just 10 years ago that it had an approval rating above 50 percent. Michael Castle, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2011, agrees that technology has changed the way legislatures operate—mainly for the worse. "In a corporate boardroom or in a university, if somebody has a fight or a marital issue, probably nobody finds out about it. Yet, in Congress these days, it's all over the Internet and cable news right away. Why is that?" Castle says, zeroing in on a complaint voiced by legislators from Johannesburg to Paris. "Look, I'm all for transparency. But it has led to a culture that emphasizes the trivial and the sensational, it keeps people from working together … it obscures the good things that do get done."

Indeed, with more sober analysis, even last May's debacle in Brazil's Congress looks a little different. The system worked in the end, and it was just the second time a senator had been removed by his peers for corruption in Brazil. Not bad for a democracy that's not even three decades old. "Everybody thinks they're a hero, but I don't think it's any worse here in Congress than it is out there," Costa concluded, months after his tirade. "They should really just let us do our jobs."

Regardless of who or what is ultimately to blame, one truth is inescapable: No institution can survive over the long term with approval ratings of just 9 percent. Something's got to change. On this, even people as diverse as Castle and Tiririca agree. The former Republican congressman, who felt the backlash firsthand in 2010 when he lost a Senate primary bid to a Tea Party favorite who had dabbled in witchcraft, says the U.S. Congress could regain its credibility by forging a compromise solution on entitlements and the federal debt. "They've got to show the public they have the wherewithal to deal with these difficult issues," Castle says.

Tiririca, naturally, is a bit more blunt: "Either this thing changes, or people are going to go crazy."

Tiririca has some modest ideas on how to keep everybody sane (see sidebar). Others have suggested such reforms as more public financing for campaigns, or more stringent financial disclosure for members of congress, as a way to get money out of legislatures—and maybe improve their image. To that end, after the allegations of insider trading surfaced in 2011, the U.S. Congress quickly passed legislation that requires members and their families to report stock trades. Naim of the Carnegie Endowment — and a former Venezuelan minister—believes in a solution that sounds counterintuitive: strengthening political parties in countries where they are weak so they can better train, educate and develop future leaders. "Democracy without strong parties," he says, "trends towards dysfunction, opportunism and amateurism."

Whatever the cure, it needs to come quickly: In Britain, France and other parts of Europe, parliaments have already seen some of their authority usurped by strong executives, says Jacques Reland, head of the European program at the Global Policy Institute in London. "What you're seeing is a presidentialization of these systems," Reland says. That might not be cause for panic in the mature democracies of Europe, but it's also happening in places like Russia and Venezuela, where strong executives are taking advantage of the void to limit press freedoms and extend their rule indefinitely. And what about the shaky young democracies in the Arab world? Can we really expect them to follow a system that is under such duress elsewhere?

For his part, Tiririca no longer has any illusions. With two years left in his term, he has narrowed his focus to passing his pet legislation. The bill would, among other things, make it easier for kids who frequently move around Brazil to transfer from one school to another—so that future Tiriricas won't have to drop out, as he did. If it passes, Tiririca says he'll finally break his silence and speak on the chamber floor. "I'll be so happy. I'll say, ‘Man, many thanks to all of you. This is so cool. Awesome.'" Until then, "I have nothing to say."

In September 2012, Tiririca was named one of 25 finalists for Brazil's best congressman, an award voted by senior journalists in Brasilia. He points to his perfect attendance figures and his sober demeanor as reasons for the distinction, and says he was honored. "Not bad for a clown," he adds with a wry grin. He's already anticipating what he'll do when he escapes from what he calls "my prison."

"I'll get out of here, and I'm going to do my funniest show ever," he confides. "It's going to be all about Congress."

(This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.)

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Claudia Parsons)