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Forget feathers and beads: At Basel's carnival Fasnacht, it's all about politics

The Swiss city of Basel is hosting its annual carnival, Fasnacht, this week. But while as colorful as those in Rio and New Orleans, Fasnacht's floats and lanterns have a decidedly political bent.

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New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Venice: All play host to the annual glittering, colorful, and wild extravaganza known as Carnival. But in Basel, Switzerland, the world’s only Protestant masque, celebrations take on a new twist – they get downright political.

On Monday, the three-day fest known as Fasnacht in the German-speaking world kicked off at 4 a.m. with floats, costumes, and lanterns mocking everything from Russian President Vladimir Putin, to stolen banking data and the eurocrisis.

The Basler Bebbi Basel (BBB), a male-only Fasnacht group, walked through Basel’s lantern-lit streets with a display designed to show solidarity with Pussy Riot – the Russian female punk group whose members were jailed after performing at the altar of an Orthodox church in Moscow in February 2012.

On the 6-foot-tall lanterns that led the BBB float, Oliver Mayer of the group painted the faces of Mr. Putin, former IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Capt. Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia, and American cyclist Lance Armstrong – all of whom have hit headlines in the past year in scandals ranging from doping to sexual assault.

“We want to show our solidarity [with Pussy Riot] because they are very brave women,” says Mr. Mayer, chief designer of the BBB. It's “the Putins and the Berlusconis in the world” who deserve criticism, he adds.

The group has also nicknamed themselves “The Free Willy Riots” to mock the wave of support across Europe for the jailed musicians, which the BBB members see as shallow and trendy.

“People were protesting to support the Pussy Riots, but it was more like a fashion thing, it was a kind of lifestyle feminism,” says Mayer. “They said they were like the Pussy Riot members, but they aren’t because they don’t share the same enemies.”

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72 hours of parades

Every year, more than 200 carnival groups – known as cliques – choose a theme to feature, and design their handmade masks, costumes, and lanterns displaying that topic. Although the festival was first mentioned in medieval documents in 1372, its themes only began to become overtly political in the mid-19th century.

Fasnacht in Basel is the only Carnival of Protestant origin in the world, and is celebrated a week after all other masquerades around the world have ended. Unlike the other festivities, it begins at 4 a.m. on a Monday – all the lights in the city go dark and more than 12,000 people start playing the same martial tune on their piccolos and drums. For 72 hours non-stop, the cliques will parade through the streets of Basel displaying their floats, masks, and costumes.

Uniquely, only those who are part of a clique are allowed to don costumes. From the floats, celebrants throw gifts to the crowd, ranging from oranges, flowers, teddy bears, and chocolate to more offbeat tokens like onions and chicken seasoning.

“Fasnacht in Basel is fun, but at the same time it is very serious because we touch on pretty hard topics,” says Felix Rudolf von Rohr, an honorary member of the Fasnachts committee.

International critique

Some subjects this year include Swiss banking secrecy and the sale of stolen financial data from Swiss banks to European countries and the United States, racism, foreigners coming to Switzerland to commit assisted-suicide, and the war on terrorism.

The eurocrisis, a main character in last year’s Fasnacht, also had its place this year in a display by the 1884 clique. It mocked Spanish King Juan Carlos’s secret elephant-hunting trip to Botswana last year that came to light after he broke his hip there and set off a national uproar.

“We wanted to talk about the separation there is in Europe between political leaders and the real people,” explains Rolli Weber, a member of clique. “It is very difficult for the majority of Spaniards to survive at the moment and their king goes hunting in Africa, ignoring their suffering and showing no respect.”

The 1884 clique’s masks depicted King Juan Carlos wearing an explorer hat topped by a crown. Several members wore costumes of tribal Africans with bloody bullet holes on their bodies and holding a sign that reads: “No, señor.”

The political messages can raise controversies, of course. Some groups got in trouble with the Catholic Church in 2011 for protesting against child sex abuse on their lanterns following the scandals that came to light across Europe in 2010. But “the Fasnachts committee is not the police, so it is the groups who have to take care of how far they go with their images and words,” says Mr. von Rohr.

A domestic bent

While international themes are popular during Fasnacht, the majority of the cliques direct their ire closer to home, taking on Basel or Swiss society.

“Basel is like a pressure cooker and Fasnacht is the valve that releases all the steam inside,” says Christian Jucker, leader of the CCB clique.

His group chose this year to poke fun of the purchase of 22 Swedish jets by the Swiss government. Switzerland got an excellent deal on the Gripen jets, but local newspapers are full of reports saying these combat planes are full of flaws. The CCB clique decided to play with the idea that when most people think of Sweden, they think of IKEA, drawing a parallel between the quality of IKEA products and the Swedish planes.

“Swiss pilots will be equipped with ridiculous jets, so that’s why we designed jets with the world famous Ikea Billy bookshelves,” says Mr. Jucker.

But, Jucker adds, Fasnacht is a great occasion for Swiss politicians to find out what annoys voters. In fact, most local politicians in Basel participate in Fasnacht even as they are poked fun at.

Even so, Jucker argues that Fasnacht is an excellent opportunity for Baslers to show themselves as a society with a sense of humor, one that can directly dish out criticism and take it – there is no beating around the bush here.

“Being underneath the mask allows us to say it all,” says Jucker.

Well, at least until Wednesday at 4 a.m., when thousands of drummers and pipers will stop playing their instruments with precise Swiss punctuality, and put their costumes and criticism away until next year.


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