It’s not always just about the musicin the Eurovision song competition

Touted by its organizers as an event that truly unites Europe, the Eurovision song contest has regularly reflected the ethno-religious sympathies and rivalries typical of the continent. And while performers from 23 countries geared up for yesterday’s semifinal at the Athens Olympic Stadium’s indoor basketball arena, Eurovision observers noted that their songs may not be the sole factor deciding the contest. «(Bloc voting) has been a feature of the contest for as long as it has been around,» says Keith Mills, the webmaster of a Eurovision fan site who has been writing a weblog on the event for the past three years. «The obvious ones are the Scandi-bloc – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland – and the ex-USSR satellites – the Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia,» he adds. Eurovision voting trends have attracted sufficient attention for a number of university research papers to be written on them in recent years. One such paper by the University of Twente in the Netherlands in 2006 found evidence of geographical and religious factors influencing the final result. It also documented that countries with a substantial Turkish immigrant population – such as Germany – tend to favor Turkish songs. «Regardless of song quality, there is a pattern,» says Omer Suleman, a physics doctoral student at the University of Oxford, which released a paper to coincide with the contest 50 years anniversary in 2005. «Some of these blocs cancel one another out, but the effect is that if there’s a good song from one of them, it does have a huge advantage at the outset,» says Mills. Asked for a copy of country-to-country voting data to confirm these claims, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) – the association that owns the rights to the Eurovision – was unable to provide scoreboards prior to 2004. «We do not keep such an archive online, it would be huge,» an EBU official told AFP. Nevertheless, information gathered unofficially by Eurovision fans, and posted online, gives credence to the bloc theory. Greece and Cyprus, for example, have given each other the maximum 12 points on eight occasions, including the last four years. According to the same data, Cyprus had never awarded points to Turkey before 2003, and Turkey’s total contribution to Cyprus has so far been a single point in 2004. Svante Stockselius, Eurovision’s executive supervisor and the EBU’s top representative in Athens, says regional culture and language ties can explain the voting trends. «Yes, we see that Balkan countries, Scandinavian countries tend to vote for each other, and I think no matter what song Greece enters, they would receive (maximum) 12 points from Cyprus,» he told AFP. «But I think there’s a lot of explanation as to why this happens… it can be a matter of sharing a cultural background, we know for instance that drums are quite popular in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Often it could be maybe the same language, understood by people in a neighboring country, or the artist might be well-known there,» he added. «I think all those elements together are the reason why people vote the way they do.» Stockselius concedes that behind-the-scenes politics have played a part in past Eurovision contests, which were decided by national jury votes. But he insists that with the advent of SMS messaging and phone-in votes, registered by TV viewers on a central database, «you cannot convince an entire population to pick up their phones and vote in a certain way.» On the night of the final on Saturday, viewers are allowed to vote for more than one song. There is a limit of 20 calls from the same number, but the rule will not uniformly apply to all the 38 countries registered to vote due to «technical reasons,» Stockselius told a news conference yesterday. ‘Eurovisi-off,’ an alternative festival A Greek left-wing parliamentary party yesterday said it was planning an alternative music festival titled «Eurovisi-off» to counter the 51st Eurovision song contest which opens in Athens today. Dismissing the Eurovision contest as too «commercial,» the Synaspismos Left Coalition said it had invited artists of Tunisian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Kurdish, Turkish, Bangladeshi, Filipino and Russian origin – members of the various immigrant communities living in Greece – to a traditional music concert this evening, to be held in one of Athens’s main city squares. «It will be a meeting of artists of different origin who live in Greece, with the objective of showing that outside the field of industrial music, a music of cultures also exists,» the organizers said in a statement. The 51st Eurovision song contest opened at the Olympic Stadium complex yesterday with 23 countries from Europe and the Near East participating in the event’s semifinal. The Eurovision final, to be held on Saturday, will be broadcast live in 38 countries in Europe as well as Turkey, Israel and Armenia, and will also be shown in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kosovo. (AFP)