Politics and the pressSaturday, May 3, 2014
The Tinelli myth
For The Herald
The ways things are looking, next year’s presidential transition will be about narrow margins. Politics and economics will intertwine to configure a landscape of certain fragmentation, where candidates will have to fight in every single front for a bunch of votes to make it to a likely second round. In a scenario like that, everything counts: even a variety television show.
Marcelo Tinelli, aged 54, is widely seen as a wild card in Argentina’s public life. He is a self-made personality, who has climbed to stardom from the bottom of the media food chain. He has something many politicians lack: street credibility; which derives in the thing politicians most covet: popularity and clout.
But Tinelli has also grown a myth in Argentina’s corridors of power. The myth goes that he can be the kingmaker if he wants to, by endorsing or ousting governments and candidates in his popular prime time programme Showmatch, formerly known as VideoMatch, which has been on the air almost every season over the last 25 years.
There are some historical facts behind that myth, true. Carlos Menem closed his re-election campaign on his airtime in 1995. Fernando de la Rúa gave Argentines crystal-clear confirmation that he was at a loss during an appearance in the show in December 2000, confusing names and failing to find a way out of the set while an imitator was making fun of him. De la Rúa would later say that moment marked the beginning of the end for his government, which would quit exactly a year later. “(The programme) hurt presidential authority,” says De la Rúa, even today. In a phrase that went down in history, De la Rúa’s presidential spokesman Juan Pablo Baylac complained about the “Tinellization” of Argentine politics.
The Kirchners could not resist the temptation of trying to channel some of the Tinelli’s popularity their way. In December 2005, then President Néstor Kirchner’s opened the doors of the Casa Rosada for the fake De la Rúa to continue with the prime-time character assassination of the resigned head of State.
In 2009, Néstor Kirchner also closed his campaign for a congressional seat in the province of Buenos Aires with an appearance at Tinelli’s. But Kirchner, who was engaged in a tight race against businessman Francisco de Narváez, only accepted to appear on the phone. He lost the vote. In October 2010, Tinelli was one of the few media personalities from outside the president’s inner circle allowed to reach and embrace Cristina Fernández during her husband’s funeral.
Tinelli’s influence in Argentine politics is likely overrated. Myths always are. Once upon a time, an axiom of vernacular politics went no government could resist a handful of negative front-pages by Clarín, the largest-selling newspaper. Since parting company with Grupo Clarín in 2008, the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government has resisted hundreds of confrontational front-pages. But Tinelli’s virtue, just like Grupo Clarín’s was until it engaged in an irrational war to the finish with the government, is to sense the political Zeitgeist and stand on the right side of history. The struggle for daily audience ratings needs to be as populist as the fight for votes every two years.
Tinelli made it clear on his opening night on Monday that he has two new friends in politics now: Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli and Deputy Sergio Massa. Scioli and Massa are leading the presidential race, according to polls. Scioli was the first politician to be imitated on Tuesday. He appeared like quite a likeable figure. Hours after his comeback, Tinelli also exchanged friendly tweets with (the real) Massa.
This Showmatch season, however, comes with a few peculiarities that could make it different from the past. Tinelli is visibly angry at the back and forth surrounding his failed participation in the government’s Fútbol para Todos televised soccer programme during the summer. He held nothing but grudges – and he showed them – with Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, who he had invited to play a role in the first place. Capitanich will be one of the government officials in line for imitation. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof could be another one.
And to thicken the plot, Tinelli is airing on Grupo Clarín’s Canal 13 but the show is produced by Ideas del Sur, the production company Tinelli sold last year to the business tycoon Cristóbal López. López is widely associated with the government, especially for the expansion of his slot machine, casino and media business over the last decade. Although things change, government money is technically paying for an anti-government programme.
Although there is little evidence to back it up, politicians believe that Tinelli’s scattered political words and the weigh of his political satire can sway an election. The closer the call in the electoral race, the greater the myth will grow: as if after more than 30 years of democracy they still did not trust voters could have a more rational judgment, as if it were easier to outsource the work of reaching the voting masses to a television host.