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Is Eurovision strictly apolitical? Think again!

Ever bigger, with ever more sophisticated technology and growing numbers of viewers: the Eurovision Song Contest revels in superlatives. But is it strictly apolitical? Think again!

Ask anyone from Eastern Europe, and you'll see how very seriously they take the event.

Interesting in this connection is Russia. A notable statement a couple of years ago by the country's minister of culture remains in memory: "Russia is not Europe." The country, he said, was uniquely Eurasian.

Yet it poured tremendous resources into this year's ESC, coupling a Swedish-written song with one of the land's most famous singers and heretofore unprecedented stage technology. They didn't do all that with the intention of losing - or turning its back on Europe.

Instead, Ukraine won with a song that had been highly publicized in the run-up to the event. The Russian delegation of the European Broadcasting Union had even tried to get the song removed from the contest for ostensibly violating the contests prohibition of political content. No, came the answer, the song is generally worded to decry war and persecution in general.

The true winners? First, Jamala, an ethnic Tartar from Crimea - a place occupied two years ago by Russia in what has been called the beginning of a new Cold War. She had explained that her grandmother had told her about a family story of suffering and persecution that she then related in the song. (DW's music editor Rick Fulker)


These competitors aren't coming into this on an even footing. While sometimes songs can win on pure mass appeal, there are a bunch of biases that go into determining who wins Eurovision. Historically, certain countries tend to vote for each other in very high numbers, putting some countries at an inherent advantage.

That's because of how Eurovision voting actually works. Each country, through a combination of viewer voting and rulings from appointed competition judges, ranks all the other countries' performances (you can't vote for yourself). Getting ranked first place is worth 12 points, second place worth 10 points, third 8 points, fourth 7, fifth 6, and so forth until reaching 11th place and below, which get zero points. The performance with the highest point total wins.

A 2013 study, by ETH Zurich scholars David García and Dorian Tanase, looked at how often countries voted for each other between 1997 and 2013. They designed a measure to see if certain countries tended to disproportionately award their points to specific other countries, and vice versa.

The chart shows their results. Blue lines indicate countries that tend to award large numbers of points to each other; red lines indicate those that tend to award a disproportionately low number to another country. The brighter the line, the stronger the connection:

You'll notice that countries tend to cluster in little cliques (where a lot of blue lines overlap), confirming the theory that certain countries vote in blocs. The bigger your bloc, the more of a built-in advantage you have. Hence why Nordic countries and post-Soviet states have done pretty well in recent years, while France hasn't won since 1977.

Why do these blocs exist? The García/Tanase chart suggests one natural explanation: cultural ties.

Inside the clusters, you tend see a lot of countries with similar ethnolinguistic backgrounds. The bottom right section, for example, has Russia, along with a lot of Eastern European countries, some central Asian ones, and Israel (which has a huge Russian immigrant population). The Nordic countries tend to vote for each other, as do German-speaking ones. (Zack Beauchamp, [15.05.2016]
Is Eurovision strictly apolitical? Think again!
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