The Crazy Politics of the Eurovision Song Contest

In Europe, the sound of crooners and pop divas has replaced cannons and tanks as the continent's competitive energies are focused on music


Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

In 410 A.D. the Visigoths stormed down the Italian peninsula and sacked Rome. In 1941, Nazi Germany swept into the Soviet Union, sparking the greatest land battle in history. Now the Europeans channel their aggression into winning the Eurovision Song Contest.

Last week, Azerbaijan emerged victorious with its entry "Running Scared."

The song contest, which started in 1956, is open to members of the European Broadcasting Union--which extends beyond traditional Europe to include countries like Israel and Jordan.

So how does it work? Each country performs one song live. Then the countries vote on the merits of the other entrants, awarding 12 points for the best song down to the dreaded "null points" for the worst (they can't vote for their own entry). Whichever act scores the most points wins.

What's the ticket to musical success? Singing ability helps, as do pyrotechnics, outlandish visuals, and revealing costumes. In fact, Eurovision has more kitsch than the Liberace museum in Vegas.

For a typically understated performance, see this video of Finland's 2006 winning entry by Lordi.

But winning Eurovision is about more than just carrying a tune. The competition is a political battlefield, where you need advice from Henry Kissinger as much as Simon Cowell.

Over the years, the Eurovision countries have formed blocs, or informal alliances that tend to vote for each other.

If you want to predict how a particular country will vote, don't worry about the singing--look at how that country voted in the past. Back in the 1970s, France and the UK began colluding, or supporting each other. But this was only the beginning. By the early 2000s, the competition was dominated by two coalitions.

From the north rose a mighty alliance, the "Viking Empire," centered on the Nordic countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. From the southeast emerged a rival "Balkan Bloc," with its heartland in the former Yugoslavia. Ukraine broke the monopoly and won Eurovision in 2004--but it also joined an alliance, the "Warsaw Pact" with Russia and Poland. The most egregious example of collusion is Cyprus and Greece. Like a love-struck Sonny and Cher, they routinely hand each other 12-point scores. In recent years, Azerbaijan has given the most points to Ukraine and Turkey. And guess which countries handed Azerbaijan the most points? Yes, Turkey and Ukraine.

Indeed, the Eurovision blocs are so predictable that Adrian Kavanagh designed a model to forecast the outcome. His guess for 2011? That Azerbaijan would win.

Why did these blocs form?

It could just be innocent, reflecting the fact that certain countries share the same musical taste. Alternatively, expatriates may influence the voting. The large Turkish minorities in Germany and the Netherlands, for example, may encourage those countries to cast votes for Turkey.

But a more Machiavellian explanation is that voting is a case of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." In other words, countries reward other states that voted for them last time. And national politics certainly plays a role. Back in 1978, Jordanian television refused to show the Israeli entry to Eurovision, and instead displayed images of flowers. When Israel annoyingly won the competition, the Jordanian media announced that Belgium was the victor--even though Belgium actually came second.

In 2003, the UK's disastrous final score of "null points" was widely seen as a rebuke for London's support of the Iraq War.

In Europe, the sound of crooners, pop divas, and heavy-metal bands has replaced muskets, cannon, and tanks as the continent's competitive energies are focused on musical mêlée. In the land where Napoleon once made nations tremble, today the only "Waterloo" you can hear is ABBA's 1974 victorious Eurovision entry.