Eurovision Gerrymandering

The yearly Eurovision Song Contest really should be, and deserves to be, ignored. A creation of the mid-1950s, when schmaltzy pop songs were still the thing, the Contest’s continued existence now into the 21st century makes no more meaningful cultural contribution than would an instruction manual on the proper wearing of the pantaloon.

So why is EuroSavant, now into its second year of existence, remarking on this yearly event for the second time? Could it be the well-known “car wreck” phenomenon: the campy songs, garish costumes, and ridiculous accessory acrobatics are uniformly awful, but you just can’t turn your eyes away? Or, given my own TV-less state, could it have something to do with the pretext the Contest provides each May for the lavish party thrown in Amsterdam by the leading Dutch recruitment/employment agency for international personnel, a party inevitably dominated by the huge TV screen broadcasting the proceedings? (This distraction, and the sheer volume of the sound, it must be said, pose considerable obstacles to the usual getting-to-know-you function of such a party, at least until on past midnight when the Contest is finally over.)

I prefer to try to excuse my coverage of something that I would rather never have to confess to even knowing about, much less seeing, by pointing to the political aspects that have crept into what is fundamentally supposed to be, if nothing else, a Eurofest of brotherhood and song.

That political angle was definitely present as I covered last year’s contest, especially in the selection of the winner, from Turkey, which to my mind has no more business being considered as a part of Europe (on grounds of religion, relative wealth, and yes, culture) than Mexico has any business aspiring to become the 51st state. (That’s the gist of the fuller opinion article you’ll see that I promised in last year’s weblog entry, but never delivered – May is a particularly busy month.) This sort of thing has now happened again in 2004, as the winner came from the Ukraine, another country which has no business either in the EU or in NATO (if the latter has any clear geopolitical identity of its own any more at all; if it in fact doesn’t, then why not?). But this bothers me less than last year’s Turkey, since (for now) no one takes the idea of inviting Ukraine into the EU seriously, and in fact recently that country’s president (Leonid Kuchma) went on record making sour-grapes-type remarks that the Ukraine didn’t want to join the EU anyway. So having the Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest can be dismissed as someone’s harmless joke, rather than a step on a slippery slope ultimately leading to EU membership for a country which does not belong.

SOMETHING FISHY IN THE VOTING

The political angle posed by the identity of the winner is therefore a bit less sharp this year, but that hardly means that it’s not there. A year ago, I reported with what you could call bemusement the excuses that resounded in the English press – after last year’s entry from the UK failed to score any points at all – that it was all due to the way England had alienated itself from most of the international community with its shoulder-to-shoulder support for the American invasion of Iraq. Now it seems that maybe that was not so far-fetched after all. The suspicions that were awakened in me as I traversed the big Amsterdam ballroom Saturday night, trying to find someone to talk with who wasn’t totally engrossed in the point-tally calculations going on up on the big screen, have been reinforced in this year’s typically excellent satirical review of the Eurovision Song Contest from the Guardian, by Sam Wollaston. As he observes, this year “the voting was the usual disgrace”; and the scoreboard provided on the Eurovision home page supplies all the data you need, in detail, to confirm that.

I won’t go into a detailed statistical analysis – I’ll leave that to any such experts as might be interested. It’s enough to look at the distribution of the 12-vote blocks. Each participating nation has blocks of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12 votes to give to individual countries to reward their song performances, depending on which ones its judges like somewhat, like a lot, and like most of all.

“Like most of all” – or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s pretty clear, though, that this is not the case, i.e. that considerations other than the artistic beauty/value of the given performance (whatever that is, and however that is supposed to be measured) tend to take the upper hand. Consider the following:

  • Appendages vote for the “mother country”: There are some “countries” represented at the Eurovision Song Contest that barely even merit that label, and which obediently hand over their top packet of votes to mama. Monaco gives 12 votes to France, Andorra to Spain, and Belarus to Russia. (Belarus might be proper country; it’s big enough, and it is certainly at least a proper dictatorship. But it’s also true that lately Belarus has been hot on actually re-integrating with Russia, until Vladimir Putin’s distinct lack of enthusiasm also cooled Belarussian ardor.) In this same manner, Greece and Cyprus managed to neatly evade the restriction that you can’t vote 12 points to yourself by exchange their largest vote-packet: 12 from Greece to Cyprus, 12 from Cyprus to Greece.
  • Regional solidarity: When Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia all give their 12 points to Serbia-Montenegro, can that really be a matter of an unprejudiced selection process? (And Serbia-Montenegro handed its 12 off to its southern neighbor, the FYR of Macedonia.) All these states used to be part of the same one big state, and as Wollaston notes, they “conveniently forgot they’d spent most of the 90s slaughtering each other (or possibly tried to make up for it).” Even more shocking: the Scandinavians! They’re supposed to be incorruptible! But no: 12 points from Denmark to Sweden, 12 points from Finland to Sweden, and 12 points from Norway to Sweden. (Sweden itself, it must be said, awarded 12 points to Serbia-Montenegro.) You think there was a little pre-Contest Nordic caucusing, or what?
  • Politically-correct for Turkey: In this entire farce the Western European countries get to play the part of indulgent grown-ups. They’ve been in this contest from the very beginning back in 1956, after all, before the free/Communist division of Europe thawed a bit to allow some of these other countries to step up and also participate (and, in many cases, before the very coming-to-existence of these countries allowed them to step up and participate). None of this vote-trading for them, then; no, the judges from those countries apparently have another fatuous cause to advance instead, and that is indeed to promote the idea of Turkey as a European country by seeing how far they can go to repeat last year’s smashing success when Turkey actually won. Belgium: 12 points for Turkey; the same for France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Couldn’t these judges demonstrate their countries’ experience and savoir-faire by actually judging the songs on their merits – or are there perhaps no “merits” to judge? That’s quite a lot of 12-vote bundles, and Turkey did end up in fourth place over-all. But perhaps there’s also an informal, wink-and-a-nod rule in place now that no country is allowed to win two years in a row, given that the winner gains the considerable exposure the following year by having the contest staged in that country. (This chart does show that countries have won consecutively in the past – Spain, Luxembourg, Israel, and Ireland even won three years in a row from 1992 to 1994. So maybe not.)

Imagine that, though: Israel winning two years in a row, in 1978 and 1979. Did anyone stop and think then whether Israel can truly be regarded as a European country? Or Turkey? Or this year’s winner, Ukraine? Maybe this is ultimately what attracts even disdainful viewers back to witness this cultural caricature year after year: To see whether it will ever hit bottom in its self-parody.

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