To some people, the often predictable nature of the voting process only adds to the fun; for them it can be amusing to see the old alliances and rivalries still going strong in the non-threatening arena of a song contest, like a rather camp Euro-pop microcosm of the complex geo-politics of Europe.
Other viewers, though, say they have had enough of the unfairness of the voting system. The predictability of voting patterns and the lack of appreciation of the actual music have completely discredited the contest, which should even be boycotted, some say.
The United Kingdom, once a dominant force in the Eurovision song contest, feels it has particularly suffered since tele-voting by the public was introduced into proceedings in the late 1990s. Veteran British broadcaster Terry Wogan quit after decades commentating on the contest following this exasperated rant on what he called the bloc voting “debacle”.
It’s argued that the most influential factor in the building of these ‘voting blocs’, is the passive cultural element, rather than any deliberate agenda to do with politics. For example, the Greeks and the Cypriots, who almost systematically exchange top or high points, do so because most Cypriots are ethnically Greek. The two populations share, as well as a language, musical traditions and tastes. A singer who is a household name in Greece will likely also be one in Cyprus, and vice-versa. In a similar way, Nordic musical preferences are not necessarily appreciated in the Latin, Mediterranean countries.
So who votes for who the most?
The most lucrative Eurovision relationship is that of Greece and Cyprus. Between 1975 and 2003 – the last year before semi-finals were brought in – whenever both countries took part in the same contest, Greece gave an average of 9.7 points to Cyprus and received an average of 10.7 in return. Turkey and Cyprus however form the pairing that exchanges the fewest points: no points at all in fact in 19 contests in which both were present between 1975 and 2003! That would suggest either a clash of musical cultures or, more likely, the interference of historical and political differences; diplomatically, Turkey refuses even to recognise Cyprus.
Looking at voting patterns since the current point system was introduced in 1975, it is clear that countries do, generally speaking, tend to give more points to – and therefore get more from – their immediate neighbours. This pattern was already apparent before tele-voting, when national juries made up of music industry ‘experts’ had sole responsibility for attributing points.
Between 1975 and 2003 the five countries that gave the most points on average to Sweden were Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania and Norway. Similarly, Estonia, Sweden and Norway were among Finland’s biggest contributors, while the biggest fans of Denmark’s entries were Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Latvia and Estonia. This points to the existence of a ‘Viking voting bloc’ that includes Scandinavia and countries on its Baltic fringes.
Also emerging from the voting data is a ‘Balkan bloc’ consisting of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Turkey. Greece did not seem to be part of this bloc before 2003; the figures show Athens neither gives nor receives either above- or below- average scores from the other Balkan states.
Another main bloc to form in the pre-2004, pre-semi final era was a ‘Warsaw Pact’ bloc involving Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Estonia and Romania. Interestingly, Estonia and Latvia won in 2001 and 2002 respectively and, it seems, benefited from being part of both the ‘Warsaw Pact’ bloc and the ‘Viking’ bloc.
The countries that consistently received the most points before 2004 were the United Kingdom and Ireland. Both have no real ‘neighbours’ except each other, and while the UK provided Ireland’s fifth highest point average between 1975-2003, Ireland’s contribution to the UK score was unremarkable, around the same as most other countries. In both cases, these countries seem not to benefit from any real bloc voting effect. Their success could be put down to the English language, the most universal in the Eurovision area, being their mother tongue or perhaps their reputations in the mainstream music world, having provided the likes of the Beatles, Bowie, U2 and so many others between them.
Tele-voting and the contest’s expansion
When semi-finals were brought in in 2004, it opened up the competition to many countries in the east of the continent that had never before taken part, and the existing voting blocs became larger and more influential. The ‘Balkan’ bloc welcomed Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania, with Greece also becoming more of an integrated member. The ‘Warsaw Pact’ bloc grew by incorporating Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Romania, Moldova and Azerbaijan.
This development appears to have reaped rewards: since 2004, with the exception of Germany in 2010, the winners have come from one of the three main blocs: the ‘Viking bloc’ (Finland ’06, Norway ’09), the ‘Warsaw Pact’ bloc (Ukraine ’04, Russia ’08, Azerbaijan ’11) or the ‘Balkan bloc’ (Greece ’05, Serbia ’07).
The introduction of tele-voting, where viewers themselves can vote for any country except their own, had a significant impact on point-giving patterns and this was particularly the case for countries with a significant diaspora or large numbers of expatriates living abroad. There are, for example, more than 1.6 million Turkish citizens living in Germany, with perhaps twice as many more Germans of Turkish origin. After Germany, the second largest population of Turks and ethnic Turks is in France, with the third being the Netherlands. It’s perhaps then no coincidence that the three countries that have given Turkey the most points in the last nine years are Germany, France and the Netherlands. Add those points to the ones given by the ‘new kids on the Balkan bloc’ such as Albania and Bosnia, and it’s no surprise that since 2003 (when it won the contest), Turkey has finished in the Top 5 seven times in nine years, having only had one Top 5 finish before phone voting came in in 1998.
The 2011 contest winner, Azerbaijan, also seems to have been helped by its diaspora. More than 1.5 million Azeris live in Russia and Turkey combined, and those two countries have given more points to Azerbaijan over the years than any other. That is not to take any credit away from Azerbaijan’s winners (Eldar and Nigar, ‘Running Scared’) as Russia and Turkey only have a maximum of 12 points each to give, no more than Cyprus, Switzerland or Ireland, where there are many fewer Azeris to be found. People have tried to figure out exactly how Azerbaijan won, without being able to put their finger on it. Perhaps it was simply the best song.
Other studies on the impact of ‘bloc voting’ on Eurovision (and there are more than you think), have concluded that it has been a crucial factor in deciding the outcome on a few occasions.
The organisers reject the allegation and find any criticism of the voting process unfounded.
It is true that non-bloc affiliated countries do win, like Germany did in 2010. But being part of a bloc does help, and the more countries in that bloc, the better. Having a wide-reaching diaspora can also do no harm to the chances of winning.
But first and foremost, if you want to win the Eurovision Song Contest, people across Europe have to like your song.
What’s the outlook for this year’s final?
Sweden go into the final as the bookmakers’ favourites at around 5 to 4, thanks to having scored more points than anyone else in the semi-finals (155). Seven countries gave Sweden a maximum 12 points, including the two other Scandinavian/Baltic nations in Sweden’s semi-final, Denmark and Estonia.
Russia is installed as the second-favourite with the bookies at between 5/6 to 1, despite the fact that Russia’s elderly performers finished only 9th in their semi-final.
Of the 26 countries participating, there are six that fit into the Viking/Baltic fringe bloc, six that could be put down under ‘Warsaw Pact’, while there are only four in the Balkan bloc. With all the semi-finalists voting, that leaves fewer countries to split the Balkan vote and with Greece having won the first semi-final, bookmakers’ odds of 50 to 1 look very enticing indeed.
Complete data: who voted for who 2003-2011 (addition of top scores only. 12, 10, 8 and 7 points)