British prime minister Theresa May had some unusual competition for her seat in Parliament this year—and social media took notice.
Twitter was ablaze Friday with photos of May standing beside an Elmo impersonator, the “Howling Laud,” and a figure named “Lord Buckethead,” who one user described as Darth Vader wearing a trash can.
In another race, Mr. Fish Finger—yes, that’s a man wearing a fish stick costume—campaigned against Liberal Democrat leader Tim Ferron.
So what’s with these unusual candidates?
According to Charlie Beckett, a professor of media studies at the London School of Economics, extravagantly costumed joke candidates like Buckethead make up a “great British tradition” that adds comedy to general elections.
“These are kind of the court jesters, the people who remind the powerful that there’s a comic side of life,” Beckett, who studies social media and British politics, said. “It’s just a little bit of color in a carnivalesque way that Brits have always had in them.”
As far back as the 1960s, these characters have taken advantage of the British practice known as the “declaration of results,” in which all the candidates for each seat stand on stage together as a winner is announced.
“Especially with the famous politicians, like Boris Johnson or the prime minister, they will traditionally attract the most novelty candidates because they get the most coverage,” Beckett said.
Indeed, the Monster Raving Loony Party—which was founded just as politics was becoming a televised spectacle—has entered at least five candidates in races to elect members of parliament since 1983. Lord Buckethead, meanwhile, previously ran against two former prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Although a fee of 500 pounds, or about $635, is intended to filter these joke candidates out, British parliamentary elections are otherwise open. To enter an election, a candidate can live anywhere and must gain the signatures of only 10 people in the district.
And often, the campaign promises are just as bizarre as their costumes.
Lord Buckethead wants to provide free bikes for everyone and nationalize the singer Adele, according to the BBC. Mr. Fish Finger, who decided to run after a Twitter poll found more people would trust a fish stick than his opponent, wrote a “manifishto” that includes promises to improve the education system by providing free fish rods for everyone.
“It’s part of the way that the core of politics in the UK doesn’t have the same decorum that American politics used to have,” Beckett said. “Here, it’s always been a bit more rough and tumble.”
But some candidates, like the Elmo impersonator, Bobby Smith, have other demands.
Bobby Smith, who won three votes while dressed up as Elmo, said that he ran as a way to raise attention to his custody battle. And another candidate, Yemi Hailemariam, wore a T-shirt featuring the name of her husband, Andy Tsege, an Ethiopian-born political dissident who was abducted and detained there in 2014.
“The funny, eccentric candidates must never be campaigning. They may be campaigning generally that life is too dull,” Beckett said, “but generally, if they get too serious, they get ignored.”