Image: Reigning 2016 Eurovision champion, Ukraine’s Jamala with her politically-charged song 1944 (photo via EurovisionTV)

Eurovision — a model of diplomacy and democracy beneath the glitz and glam

Beneath its regimented three minute songs, its English-as-a-second-language lyrics and those charming european accents, Harry Johnson finds in Eurovision a first class model for discourse, diplomacy and democracy in a troubled world

In one of his more celebrated essays George Orwell describes international sports competitions as wars without the guns.

If Orwell were alive to watch this year’s Eurovision final he might well be moved to describe the international broadcast cultural phenomenon as “diplomacy without the gunboats.”

The grand final of the 62nd Eurovision Song Competition airs live on SBS Australia at the unseemly (live voting) hour of 5am on Sunday 12 May. The primetime (closed-voting) repeat airs at 7.30pm Sunday.

With an expected worldwide audience of more than 200 million viewers watching live and on national repeats throughout the day, Israel will compete first, with France closing. The two most fancied chances, from Italy and Portugal, perform at 9 and 11, respectively.

Australia has two hopes this year. 17-year-old Isaiah Firebrace is the official competitor for Australia, while 21-year-old Anja Nissen is singing for Denmark. They will perform in the grand final at spots 14 and 10, respectively.

Diplomacy without gunboats and wars without guns … no matter how much politics may overshadow them, cultural spectacles like Eurovision are good for world peace and harmony, right?

Politics at Eurovision

Just like the Olympic Games of the modern era, every annual Eurovision serves as a platform for political controversies …

… 2014, 2015, 2016 and, again, 2017 is no exception.

But surely these just add to the importance and the enjoyment of the European Broadcasting Union spectacle that is Eurovision?

2014 and LGTBIQ Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst

In a show of global solidarity for long-persecuted LGBTIQ communities around the world, Austrian bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst (the pop recording artist and onstage alter-ego of Austrian performer Thomas Neuwirth) wowed the jurors under the old juror-only voting system to win Eurovision 2014 with her (his) song Rise Like a Phoenix.

With the win Conchita became a global LGBTIQ icon.

Image: LGBTIQ personality, Austria’s bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst (Thomas Neuwirth) was a controversial Eurovision 2014 winner (photo via TVEurovision)

Words and music aside, Conchita’s presence on the winner’s dais as an LGBTIQ icon, and the jubilation her (his) victory produced worldwide, sent political messages of rebuke to nations such as Russia, with strict anti-LGBTIQ laws and brutal practices of policing of them.

2015 and Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow

2015 saw a less political Eurovision with Sweden’s ultra-smooth Mans Zelmerlow winning the last jurors-only voting competition with his non-political youth ballad Heroes.

2016, War in Crimea and Eurovision’s model for democracy and harmony

2016 saw Eurovision boosted by a new public televoting system, and a competition politically rocked by fresh warfare in the Crimea.

New Eurovision televoting system

In a visionary demonstration of Tofler’s concept of hyperdemocracy, Eurovision 2016 saw the introduction of a new two-tier voting system. The jury panels of the national broadcasters continue to select and judge the competitors. But for the first time the national jury panels shared their judging powers equally with their national televoters.

The new dual-voting system produced one of the most exciting finishes in the competition’s 61-year history — and also one of its most political.

And the experiment was so successful last year, that televoting is here to stay for 2017 too.

War in the Crimea

Eurovision 2016 took place against the back drop of Russian military interventions (and some would say instigations) in the civil war between Russian and non-Russian ethnic factions in Ukraine. These cumulated with Russia annexing the gunboat strategic Crimean peninsula as a Russian exclave.

Ukraine and its northern neighbour Belarus share long land borders along the Western edge of Russia. The Crimean peninsula, with its capital city of Sevastapol and its Black Sea ports south of the anxious but still Ukrainian controlled Odessa, serve as an important bases for the Russian Navy and have were the focus of massive Russian migration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Russian annexation of Crimea began in March 2014 when a Ukranian Admiral and 10,000 Ukranian soldiers under his command defected to Russia, as masked Russian-backed soldiers stormed and occupied the Ukranian parliament. Just a thin strip of land connects Crimea to Ukraine. Just a thin strip of water separates both from Russia.

Ukraine’s Tartar-Crimean competitor Jamala won Eurovision 2016, in a show of greater European popular solidarity for a Ukraine torn and under siege.

The politically charged lyrics of Jamala’s song 1944, which she sings half in English and half in her mother language, are an unmasked protest against the long history of Russian military interventions in the Crimea. Jamala’s song protests the forced deportation of Crimean Tartars in 1944 and the ongoing 2016 Russian guns and gunboat annexation of the peninsula today.

… 1944? 2016? 2017? “Plus change plus meme; nothing much has changed. It’s still all the same for indigenous Crimeans compared to ‘back then’”, the ever-observant and borderline-depressive Orwell might have said.

In a big vindication of the new dual college voting system, Jamala rode a wave of online, phone and app votes from televoters across Europe to push past the judges’ clear favourite, Australian singing sensation Dami Im. Dami moved from first to the almost equally as coveted runner-up position.

Dami Im comprehensively won the jurors votes, with 320 points. This put Dami a full 109 points ahead of the eventual winner Jamala at the midway point, after counting of the votes from the national broadcaster juries.

Image: Pipped at the post. Australia’s Dami Im, runner-up for Eurovision 2016. Dami missed out on big votes from televoters despite dominating the expert juror voting under new Eurovision split-voting system (photo via EurovisionTV)

Were European publics nationally motivated against Dami Im in the finals?

Perhaps … but very unlikely. After all, Europeans love us Australians, don’t they?

Dami scored surprisingly low with televoters having regard to her dominant juror results. But there are no exit polls to substantiate or refute any claims of antipodean bias.

The more plausible — but also untestable — hypothesis is that European viewers were moved more strongly by Jamala’s performance than their national jurors were, given the history and context that she shares with her song.

And claims of a European bias against Australia in the 2016 Eurovision grand final that may have been compounded by the untimely early morning voting period down under miss key points entirely.

Australian viewers’ votes are never going to factor into any Eurovision result for Australia because of Eurovision’s longstanding “love thy neighbours — not thyself” voting system.

Eurovision’s“Love Thy Neighbours” voting system

Under the longstanding rule that Orwell would have loved most about Eurovision, jurors (jury panels of industry experts chosen by each national broadcaster) and publics (national viewers) are both blocked from voting for their own nation’s competitor.

You can celebrate in the tribalism and the nationalism of the win, or of coming second, or of scoring more points than a neighbouring country or two. But you can’t directly vote to make it happen. National broadcasters and viewers alike must vote for their neighbours (plural) in the order that they love them the most.

This is a powerful recipe for regional and global good vibes and harmony.

The ‘Love Thy Neighbours” rule also makes irrelevant the twin tyrannies of distance (or, in this case, time-zone) and tiny population relative to the ‘big 5’ permanent Eurovision nations who might otherwise dominate voting.

These did not bear into the outcome last year. Nor will they be a factor this year.

And, besides, every competing nation gets an equal number of votes, regardless of how huge or how small its population.

In those two simple rules lays the beauty of the Eurovision “Love Thy Neighbours — Not Thyself” tradition.

Rexit, Brexit and the broader 2017 Eurovision political context

What of the political shadows behind this year’s Eurovision?

These can be summed up in 5 words: “Russian Boycott”, “Crimea”, “Rexit”, and “Brexit”. Given the song list for Euorvision 2017, perhaps two more words should be added “Political Fatigue”.

Russian Boycott

First there is the total boycott by Russian broadcaster Channel One, in response to the Ukrainian government’s refusal to allow Russia’s chosen competitor Yulia Samoylova to enter the country to compete. The shadows behind Eurovision 2016 have grown even darker for 2017.

Yulia’s “crime” under Ukrainian law was entering the Crimea to perform last year in the pro-Russian occupied territory, after it was annexed by Russia.

Here, diplomacy stepped into the Eurovision Song Competition. The EBU suggested to break the Ukraine-Russia impasse, that either Yulia Samoylova could compete by satellite-link, or that Channel One could send an alternative competitor who could legally enter Ukraine to complete in Kyiv (“Kiev”).

Channel One refused to consider both options,choosing instead to boycott the event. As a result, there is no Russian competitor in Kiev this year, and Eurovision will not be broadcast in Russia.So it’s a “Rexit”, of sorts, from Eurovision this year.

Rexit– Russia’s Absence

The Russian boycott of Eurovision is not going to produce the one-sided affairs of the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics of the 1980s.

But Russia’s absence will still have an impact, and is already having an impact in pre-Competition betting circles.

The Euorvision 2017 betting market

Of the 42 competing nations, bookmakers have installed Italy’s Francesco Gabanni as the hottest of odds-on favourites, at the almost unbackable odds of 5/4 (risk $4 to get $5 back if he wins). In early betting, only two competitors are given bookies’ chances of beating him. Portugal’s Salvador Sobral is singing his Portuguese love song Amar Pelos Dois) at odds of 2/1. And Bulgaria’s Kristian Kostov is singing in English his love song Beautiful Mess, at odds of 4/1.

After the three favourites with punters, the next highest rated competitor is Belgium’s Blanche. She is singing in English another love song, City Lights, with odds of 20/1 payouts — outsider’s odds. The remaining 38 other nations are relegated outsiders in the betting circles with odds that quickly balloon to long shot status. For example, Croatia’s Jacques Houdec is the tenth-rated chance, his cheesy-complex, pop-opera English-Croatian fusion My Friend offering long-shot odds of 100/1.

Image: “May the odds be forever in your favour.” With an open field of contenders, bookmakers are offering long odds on most competitors. Two short-price favourites, Italy is the hottest of favourites with just 48 hours to go. Meanwhile in the Australia derby Australia’s Isaiah Firebrace and Denmark’s Aussie competitor Anja Nissen are tied equal in fourteenth place amongst punters (photo via Oddschecker)

It is shades of 2015 Eurovision again, a sign of political fatigue perhaps, that all the top 5 fancied performers at this year’s Eurovision are singing non-political, love songs.

The Russian Boycott

The Russian boycott throws a wild card into this year’s Eurovision. Russian competitors generally perform well. Russia’s Sergey Lazarev finished 3rd in 2016 with 491 votes, including more public votes though fewer juror votes than 1st placed Jamala. Maybe the European publics were less upset about Russia’s involvement in the Crimea than their national broadcasters’ juror panels were. Or perhaps the lay publics have different musical tastes than their broadcasting experts.

While Australia comprehensively won the juror vote, Russia won the popular vote in 2016 despite the Ukraine intervention, and despite finishing third overall behind Ukraine and Australia.But Ukraine, the runner-up in both voting colleges, scored well enough with both voting pools to pip both Australia and Russia at the finish post.

If like with Jamala last year, there is a swell of televoter support for Ukraine’s pre-qualified competitor O. Torvold, then this is likely to be read later as a trans-European public endorsement of opposition to Russian involvement in Crimea, and Ukraine’s refusal to allow Russia’s Yulia Samoylova to compete live at Kyiv, which triggered Rexit.

Perhaps it is fear of collapses of both juror and televotes that prompted the Russian boycott — Russian national broadcaster Channel One wanting to avoid at all costs the possibility of a voting outcome that could be interpreted as a trans-European popular backlash against its military occupation and internal violence in Crimea.

Torvold is unlikely to score as highly with jurors as Jamala did last year. His Bon Jovi influenced rock ballad Time, an English language ode wishing for peace in his homeland, is one of the rank outsiders in pre-finals betting, with bookmakers offering punters odds of 200/1.

Image: With his Bon Jovi influenced rock song Time, Ukraine’s O. Torvold, is a long shot outsider, singing for an end to conflict in the Crimea. (photo via EurovisionTV)

The EBU proposal for Russia’s Yulia Samoylova to perform this year by satellite will not have hurt Ukraine’s voting chances. And Rexit, by escalating the political dispute between the nations, may even help Ukraine to beat the Eurovision popular televote record set by third place Russia, last year. We won’t know until after the jurors’ and publics’ votes are counted.


How will Brexit affect the chances of the UK competitor, Lucie Jones, a 25-year-old songstress from Wales?

Current betting has Lucie Jones a respectable 6th favorite. Her political love song Never Give Up on You has one of the more complex sets of lyrical and musical structures of all the songs in this year’s competition.

Beautifully delivered with Celtic echoes of Enya and Kate Bush, Never Give Up on You is practically an anthem for millennial Brits across the UK, disaffected by the Brexit voting of their elders and longing to remain a part of the European Union that they were born into. And surely it is their birth right to remain within the European Union?

All politics aside, on technical merits Never Give Up on You is likely to poll very highly with the 42 panels of national jurors. But what about the televoting audiences at home?

Image: “Together we’ll get through this storm.” Beautifully delivered with Celtic echoes of Enya and Kate Bush, UK competitor Lucie Jones’ political love song Never Give Up on You is practically an anthem for millennial Brits longing to remain a part of the European Union (photo via EurovisionTV)

One possibility is that traditionally pro-UK voting jurors will protest against Brexit by ignoring the UK. Another, maybe stronger, possibility is of an even bigger “love thy UK” vote from jurors — to encourage Britains to stay in the European Union.

And as 2016 showed with the wide swings between juries and televoters for the final three, Ukraine, Australia and Russia, there is no reason to think that the publics of Europe might vote as strongly, or as weakly, in the same, or in the opposite directions as their national juries.

Whatever the results for Eurovision 2017, political scientists will have a wealth of data for analysis, hypothesis and conjecture as Eurovision 2017 serves as a pair of greater Europe referenda of sorts, or barometers at least, of public and broadcaster opinions towards the UK’s fateful Brexit decision.

Australia’s chances — local derby

With his Sam Smith influenced power ballad Don’t Come Easy, Australia’s official entrant 17-year-old Isaiah Firebrace is one of ten qualifiers from the First Semi Final. The 2016 Australian X-Factor winner qualified along with other qualifiers such as Azerbaijan and the slightly more fancied qualifier from Armenia.

Image: Australia’s 17-year-old competitor in Eurovision 2017. Reigning Australian X-factor winner Isaiah Firebrace is a good chance to match Dami Im’s second placing in Eurovision 2016 (photo via EurovisionTV)

With his European good looks, slick music and visual production, a maturity beyond his teenage years, and a proven track record with jurors and televoters at home, Isaiah must be considered an outside chance to match Dami Im’s impressive results last year.

Meanwhile, there is another young Australian in this year’s Eurovision field. Singing for Denmark, equally credentialed 21-year-old Anja Nissen is a past winner of Australia’s other national broadcast music competition The Voice. Anja should also prove popular with grand final jurors and televoters, with her Rhianna influenced ballad Where I am.

Image: Singing in Kyiy for Denmark, it’s Australia’s Anja Nissen. Anja Nissen is representating her parents’ birthplace, Denmark, Australian jurors and audiences can vote for Anja as she isn’t flying Australia’s flag (photo via EurovisionTV)

Isaiah’s and Anja’s head to head final results should be interesting. Both 3 minute songs feature lyrics and structures that are well suited to Europe’s millions of English as a second language speakers. And the two are almost made to be re-mixed as a 6-minute duet, such are the musical similarities between songs and performers.

Anja’s semi-final performance included Eurovision’s longest ever fireworks display, a 50 seconds pyrotechnic waterfall. This suggests that the Danes may have even bigger fireworks planned for her grand final performance.

Isaiah and Anja are tied with Azerbaijan at equal fourteenth in pre-grand final betting, with bookmakers offering odds of 150/1.

Unlike official Australian competitor Isaiah Firebrace, Anja is eligible to receive Australian jurors and televoters votes. Depending on the voting patterns, this might fuel conspiracy theories of a 2017 voting coalition between the already close, mutually Royalty-loving,Australian and Danish voting jurors and publics.

Other than this, it is impossible to predict how Rexit and Brexit might affect the Australians’ chances.

Conclusion:the Eurovision model of discourse, democracy and diplomacy

Victory at Eurovision can demonstrates all of the tribalism, all of the fierce nationalism that Orwell, ever the internationalist, abhorred about international sports.

But the Eurovision rules also lock in the spirit of goodwill and a spirit of fair play, the two things that Orwell found most lacking and most despicable about international sports — even before they became rocked by big money and drugs scandals from the 1960s onwards.

The core ‘Love Thy Neighbours — NotThyself” voting system, and the 2016 Eurovision results could not have better demonstrated the Eurovision spirits of goodwill and fairplay any more strongly.

Just imagine the bold leap in global democracy and institutional credibility if the Eurovision vision of democracy was extended to other global institutions, like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank …

No doubt Orwell, who abhorred theInternational Olympic Games as war without the guns, would have applauded the Eurovision SongCompetition as diplomacy without the gunboats.

Eurovision 2017 is broadcast in Australia on SBS (all times are AEST):

SemiFinal 1 (Isaiah Firebrace wins through to theGrand Final)

Live: 5 am Wednesday, 10 May (AustraliaVotes — now closed)

Primetime: 7.30pm Friday 12 May (repeat)

SemiFinal 2 (Anja Nissen wins through to the Grand Final)

Live: 5 am Friday 10 May (Australia votes –now closed)

Primetime: 7.30pm Saturday 13 May (repeat)

GrandFinal (both Isaiah Firebrace and Anja Nissen perform)

Live: 5am Sunday 14 May (Australia votes)

Primetime: 7.30pm Sunday 14 May (repeat)