Does the devil have all the best tunes? Freedom, repression and Eurovision voting patterns

Adrian Kavanagh, 18th May 2012

While the Eurovision Song Contest portrays itself as avowedly apolitical, as previous posts have shown there are strong political dimensions running through the contest, a factor that is no doubt increased by the fact that the contest is one of the few occasions that (often little known) countries get to portray themselves on a European stage and to an audience of hundreds of millions. This post touches on another dimension of this, attempting to understand whether a link exists between the level of freedom/repression in a state and that state’s prospects of doing well in the Eurovision Song Contest, mindful of the controversies involved with the hosting of this year’s contest in Baku by Azerbaijan and the hosting of, or the lead up to, previous contests in Ukraine, Serbia and Russia. Hosting Eurovision can act as a means of encouraging more progressive elements within a state, as was evidenced with the 2008 contest in Belgrade and (temporarily) 2005 contest in Kyiv, as well as opening these states up to a European-wide audience (and helping in the process of European-ising a state) as was also the case with Estonia’s hosting of the 2002 contest in Taalin and Latvia’s hosting of the 2003 contest in Riga. By contrast, the hosting of the 2009 Moscow contest seems to have had no impact on internal politics within Russia or on how that state interacted with, and portrayed itself to, the rest of Europe. This also leads to the consideration of whether there may be a link between success at the Eurovision Song Contest and the level of democraticisation or freedom within a state. This post suggests that such a link exists and it is the countries with lower levels of political, civil and press liberties are the more likely to do well in Eurovision contests. Is this accidental or not?

The figures to be used in this analysis are based on indices ranking the levels of political rights and civil liberties in different states, as measured and published by the Freedom House institute, as well a measure of press freedom – the press freedom index as published on the Reporters Without Borders website, which are to be related to the average points tallies won by different Eurovision countries between 1998 and 2011 (covering an almost decade and a half period starting with the introduction of full-blown televoting in the 1998 contest).

Eurovision vote patterns and political rights: The political rights index, as developed by the Freedom House institute, ranks countries from one to seven in terms of levels of political freedom, with countries with a rank of one scoring best in terms of political freedom. Of the forty seven different states which have participated in Eurovisions since 1998, twenty nine of these achieve the best ranking (one) here, with one (Belarus) attaining the worst possible ranking (seven) ahead of three other states with a ranking of six (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), with a gap of one between these countries and the next set of countries (Ukraine, Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) which all have a ranking of four. Leaving Italy (which has just participated in one contest – last year’s final – since 1998) out of the equation, it is found that all the countries with a ranking of one attained an average of 57.88 Eurovision points across all the contests held over this period while all other eighteen countries (with lower scores in terms of political rights) attained an average of 92.88 Eurovision points across this same period.

Figure 1: Average Eurovision points tallies for countries according to their political right index (Freedom House)

As the graph above shows, the general trend is one that countries with better/more democratic rankings in terms of the political rights index have tended to perform less well in Eurovisions held over the past decade and a half as opposed to the average scores for countries with less democratic/progressive rankings. The general trend is nixed somewhat by the fact that the one country in Eurovision, Belarus, with a ranking of seven has performed relatively poorly in most contests since that country entered Eurovision for the first time in 2004, having qualified for the final on just two occasions out of eight attempts and achieving a Top 10 final placing on just occasion (Koldun in 2007). Other than that, the general trend evident in the graph is one where a higher score (depicting lower levels of political rights) tends to be associated with stronger Eurovision performances, with most of the countries immediately below Belarus in terms of the ranking of Eurovision-participating countries (Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Georgia) tending to have been amongst the most successful countries in the song contest over the 2000s.

Eurovision vote patterns and civil liberties: The civil liberties index, as developed by the Freedom House institute, ranks countries across the globe from one to seven in terms of civil liberties, with countries with a rank of one scoring best in terms of this. Of the forty seven different states which have participated in Eurovisions since 1998, twenty seven of these achieve the best ranking (one) here, with one (Belarus) attaining a ranking of six, followed by two other states with a ranking of five (Russia and Azerbaijan), one with a ranking of four (Armenia) and a number of countries with a ranking of three (Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Moldova, FYR Macedonia and Albania). Leaving Italy (which has just participated in one contest – last year’s final – since 1998) out of the equation, it is found that all the countries with a ranking of one attained an average of 54.22 Eurovision points across all the contests held over this period while all other eighteen countries (with lower scores in terms of political rights) attained an average of 94.13 Eurovision points across this same period, a slightly wider margin than was the case in relation to the link between political rights and Eurovision success.

Figure 2: Average Eurovision points tallies for countries according to their civil liberties index (Freedom House)

As the graph above shows, the general trend is one that countries with better rankings in terms of civil liberties (rankings of one, or closer to one) perform less well in Eurovisions as opposed to the average scores for countries with less progressive rankings. The general trend is nixed somewhat by the relatively poor Eurovision performances of the one country in Eurovision, Belarus, with a ranking of six, as was discussed earlier. Other than that, the general trend evident in the graph is one where a higher score (depicting lower levels of civil liberties) tends to be associated with stronger Eurovision performances and indeed the relationship here is even more compelling than was the case for the previous discussion relating to political rights.

Eurovision vote patterns and press freedom: The press freedom index, as developed by Reporters Without Borders, ranks countries from minus ten to one hundred in terms of levels of press freedom. The countries with the best records across the globe (Norway and Finland) enjoy a score of minus ten, just ahead of Estonia and Denmark with scores of minus nine, Austria with a score of minus eight and Iceland with a score of minus seven, and indeed the six countries with the best records across the globe are all Eurovision participants and fourteen Eurovision countries (including Ireland) indeed account amongst the list of the twenty best countries across the globe in terms of how they score in relation to press freedom. The countries with the worst records out of the Eurovision participating states in terms of press freedom have decidedly higher scores recorded here, including Belarus (99.00), Azerbaijan (87.25), Turkey (70.00), Russia (66.00) and Ukraine (54.00).

Figure 3: Average Eurovision points relation to press freedom index scores (Reporters Without Borders)

The scaterplot above shows a relationship (which is statistically significant) between average Eurovision scores between 1998 and 2011 and the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index scores, with countries scoring less well in terms of press freedom tending to do signficantly better in terms of winning Eurovision points than those ranked best in terms in terms of press freedom, despite the fact that most of the Scandinavian/Nordic Bloc countries, which tend to have the best ratings globally, have achieved successful results in recent Eurovision contests. This is captured in the fact that countries such as Norway and Sweden are shown to be winning more Eurovision points than the relationship/model would predict, as is also the case for Greece, Serbia and Azerbaijan. At the other end of the scale, the actual Eurovision results of the Czech Republic (no longer competing in Eurovision), Slovakia, Montenegro and Belarus are signficantly lower that the results which the model would be predicting for these countries based on the press freedom scores.

So the general trend here appears to be that less freedom seems to equate to higher Eurovision Song Contest points. Why might this be the case? Are the Eurovision voters voting politically to support repressive regimes? Hardly. Indeed, it is probably down to the degree that voters tend to equate the acts representing countries at Eurovision as personifying those countries in themselves, almost to the extent that for them the acts are the countries, a factor that tends to strip away the political characteristics and concerns of that specific country. For instance, for many Eurovision voters, for the next week or so, Jedward will be Ireland to them. Despite much talk of “political voting”, as previous posts here have suggested most voting on the part of Eurovision televoters tends not to be political but more so a case of either “friends and neighbours” voting or diaspora voting, although the political dimension is perhaps evident in non-voting patterns as in the (non-voting) relationship between neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan. Other than cases of countries that are in conflict with one another proving reluctant to vote for each other at Eurovision (which was also the case with Cyprus and Turkey up to the late 1990s), there does not seem to be strong evidence of the Eurovision audience being swayed by the political system or circumstances in a state to vote for, or against, that state in a contest. There was much talk in 2003 of the United Kingdom’s nil points score amounting to a protest against the invasion of Iraq, but the reality is that this was more to do with the quality of the song itself, a factor underpinned by the nils points achieved by neutral Switzerland in the following year’s semi final in recognition of a similarly underwhelming Eurovision entry.

The countries that have the worst records in terms of civil liberties, as well as press and political freedoms, tend to be located in the eastern part of the Eurovision region (though it is worth noting that a number of these countries, such as Estonia, have exceptional records in this regard), a region which has tended to dominate Eurovision contests over the past decade but especially during the 2004-08 period. Added to the fact that these countries were (re)establishing ties with the rest of Europe in the immediate post-Soviet period, a number of these states were newly independent, such as Ukraine (winners in 2004), Serbia (winners in 2007) and Azerbaijan (winners in 2011), and participation in Eurovision allowed these countries to visibly (re)claim a role on the European stage, as well as acting to confirm the statehood of the newly independent states, and these countries’ motivation for winning the contest could be viewed in that light.  This contrasted significantly with the more blasé attitude of the “old Eurovision” states in western Europe during this same period (but not of the “old Eurovision” states from regions such as the Balkans, with the Eurovision results of countries such as Greece and Turkey improving dramatically during this period). The eastern countries invested more effort in their acts (and, in a number of cases, significantly more money) and it is perhaps not that surprising that results tended to favour these in this period. Participating Eurovision acts from these countries have also tended to be more directly support by the political elites, who no dount are aware of the benefits that a Eurovision win might bring for their country.

The “big acts” in the “new Eurovision” countries were also more likely to participate in the contest, no doubt viewing the contest as a means of reaching out to a wider, European, audience, something that the “big acts” from the more western countries did not feel they needed to do or else felt they needed to avoid! Finally, in addition to the fact that countries in the same region will  tend to share similar musicial tastes, the fact that number of the newly independent countries were once all part of the same state only a few decades earlier means that these tend to share music markets. Eurovision acts hailing from these states tend to be well known hence in other neighbouring states and hence well placed to attract votes from these (in a similar manner to the manner in which the big Irish and UK acts would be known in both of these countries, resulting in strong votes usually from the UK to Ireland, and vice versa albeit to a less signficant degree).

Despite the patterns noted above Eurovision audiences are patently not voting with their mobile phones for repression. It could be argued that the link between Eurovision vote patterns and the different freedom indices are accidental, but there is also evidence that political elites in some of the participating countries with the most unsatisfactory freedom indices do take a more hands-on role in terms of their state’s participation in Eurovision and the promotion of their acts and this is a factor that no doubt feeds in the relationships uncovered here.

Advertisements

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: