A scattering of votes: a brief look at diaspora and their impact at the Eurovision

I am a child of diaspora; second generation Irish, a “plastic Paddy” as described by some.

Both my Dad’s parents were from Ireland (Offaly and Galway, to be more precise): we played Irish sports after school, attended community events, and a (Roman Catholic) church that was mostly Irish. We grew up immersed in Irish music and culture. And we never, ever, went to school on St. Patrick’s Day—otherwise, how would we have marched? Ireland was “where we’re from”, so spending a summer with my cousins in Tipperary was transformative, even as an eight year old.

In other words, my Irishness is an important part of me. I’ve noticed in my travels—including those related to the Eurovision Song Contest—that there are others whose cultural identity, whose resilience keeps the motherland close to their heart. Perhaps every country that participates in the Eurovision Song Contest has descendants all over the world…but these don’t all constitute a diaspora.

This article takes this idea—that being a member of a diaspora is something more significant than just lineage or ethnicity—then tries to see how well it fits in today’s Eurovision. We’ll also consider the extent to which diasporic voting (a term I coined at ESCToday.com over a decade ago) may impact results in everyone’s favourite song contest.

What is a diaspora

From its origin, a diaspora is a scattering. In agriculture this often refers to seeds; amongst people this is also a useful metaphor. A diaspora is the scattering away of people (seeds) from their roots (tree)…often relatively nearby, but sometimes at a surprising distance.

It’s perhaps helpful to start with some sort of framework: with respect to diaspora, there are many to choose from. William Safran gave the concept particular currency in the realm of social research. According to Safran, to qualify as a diaspora “several” of the following conditions must be met:

  1. They, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more regions.
  2. They retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland
  3. Their relationship with the dominant element of society in the host- land is complicated and often uneasy.
  4. They regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return—if appropriate.
  5. They continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland
  6. They wish to survive as a distinct community—in most instances as a minority—by maintaining and transmitting a cultural and/or religious heritage
  7. Their cultural, religious, economic, and/or political relationships with the homeland are reflected in a significant way in their communal institutions (Safran, 2005, p. 37)

Of these seven conditions I would say numbers 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7 apply to me and my family. Number 4 is an interesting one: in my travels to Ireland I have felt a strong sense of place, but not of longing to be there. In my 20s I might have considered a move there, but not really assuming it would be for the long term. Number 3 doesn’t really apply, but family and friends who’ve moved to the UK from Ireland often have had a very different experience than the Canadian, American, Aussie or Kiwi diaspora.

What Safran’s framework implies is that ancestry alone does not qualify you for membership in a diaspora. More precisely, having an ancestry, but little cultural capital related to that ancestry probably means you’re not part of that culture’s diaspora.

As well, we need to make a distinction between cultural affinity and cultural identity. Membership in a similar culture—or one with a shared cultural sphere based on language—isn’t the same thing as a diaspora, though such ties could also impact a televote result (more on this later). Strong, persistent ties and a profound sense of shared identity with a homeland are required.

So why is this relevant to the Eurovision? Read on…

The 1990s

There have been diaspora from Europe since the time of empire, though their relevance to the Eurovision is only applicable to diaspora within and across the European Broadcast Area. Strong diaspora in Canada or the US will have no impact on the results of a Grand Final, whereas a well placed diaspora within the participating countries theoretically could.

Then again, until 1997, the general public had no say in selecting Eurovision winners—juries decided. When televoting started in the late 1990s, we nonetheless saw no more than 25 entries in any given year. Of these, possible diaspora would have included:

Homeland Diaspora
Ireland United Kingdom
Malta United Kingdom
Turkey Germany
Turkey Netherlands
Turkey Belgium
Cyprus United Kingdom
Cyprus Greece
Iceland Denmark
France Israel

To make this a useful exercise, we applied the following assumptions:

  • A song that does overall very well in a given year, more or less earns its points on merit
  • A song that does poorly except with its diaspora earns its points from the diaspora
  • One year’s votes are not enough: we need to look for patterns
  • We are parking the idea that other things (*coughvotebuyingcough*) might be in play here

If we look at the results from 1997-2000, some voting patterns emerge, ones that are more or less consistent year upon year, regardless of how well an entry does otherwise.

Since the Irish entries in the 1990s were almost all top 10 results—including four wins—even starting with 1997 it is difficult to ascertain a diaspora result with the UK. After finishing second and ninth in 1997 and 1998, a quick look at 1999 (their worst result of the decade) shows the UK awarded Ireland 4 points for The Mullans’ When You Need Me. Since only three countries awarded Ireland any points (including a bizarre 12 from Lithuania): those 4 points could be a diaspora effect.

Turkey is much more interesting. With large Turkish communities in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—and generally not doing well at the Eurovision—any point skew should be easy to spot. In fact, Turkey scored the maximum 12 points from Germany in 1997 (where they were third overall, so we count this as a strong entry), 1998, and 1999. However, in those same years the Netherlands awarded Turkey two, one, and zero points, respectively. Belgium missed the ’97 Eurovision, but only awarded Turkey 2 points in 1998 and null. In 1999. In the new millennium this pattern changes, however.

Malta received zero from the UK in ’97, the full 12 points in ’98 (the year Chiara nearly won with The One That I Love), and 6 points in ’99. Cyprus received 12 from Greece in ’97 and ’98 (Greece were relegated in ’99), but received only five, three, and two points from the UK those same years: given the consistency of scores, perhaps there is a small diaspora effect.

For our other potential diaspora, we lack data. 1999 was the only year that both Denmark and Iceland were competing: Denmark did swap douze points with Iceland, but Selma finished second overall that year for Iceland. In ’98 and ’99 Israel gave France null, but France gave Israel 12 (the year Dana International’s Diva won, another strong entry); in ’99 Israel blanked France, whilst France gave Israel 10 points (for a song that was fifth overall, yet another strong entry. Thus we can’t discern anything from these scores.

In the 1990s, as televoting increasingly becomes the norm, we see a few small patterns of what is perhaps diasporic voting. But nothing that would impact the results. Yet.

The year that changed everything

With the advent of the semi-final system in 2004, the implications of televoting took on two different elements: qualifying for the Grand Final as one of the top 10 entries competing in a semi-final, as well as overall result in a Grand Final.

Prior to 2004, countries were relegated based on overall weak scores, allowing other countries to rotate back in. So we had a core group of around 15 countries that appeared in most years and another 15 or so that rotated into those other 8-to-10 spots in a 23-25 song grand final. Only countries that participated could vote, though many more countries showed the live broadcast.

Beginning in Istanbul, all who were eligible could play. The big 4 (UK, France, Spain and Germany), as the bankrollers of much of the Contest were guaranteed places in the new Grand Final on Saturday night. The host (usually, but not obligatorily the winner from the previous year) was also guaranteed a Grand Final spot. Finally the 10 best ranked returning countries from the previous year were considered as “pre-qualified” grand finallists. That left 10 spots for the top semi-finallists.

But unlike in years previous, all countries voted in both the 2004 semi-final and Grand Final. For the first time, a pan-competition televote was used. The bonus of this for the Grand Final was crowing a champion based on everyone’s preferences across Europe. But this also meant the semi-finallist qualifiers could, in theory, find themselves in the Saturday night show based on support from non-competing countries: the big 4, the hosts, and the already qualified.

For 2004 possible diaspora would have included:

Homeland Diaspora Homeland Diaspora
Ireland United Kingdom Albania Macedonia
Malta United Kingdom Albania Serbia & Montenegro
Turkey Germany Albania Greece
Turkey Netherlands Romania Spain
Turkey Belgium Romania Portugal
Cyprus United Kingdom Russia Latvia
Cyprus Greece Russia Estonia
Greece Albania Russia Ukraine
Iceland Denmark Russia Belarus
France Israel Estonia Finland
Serbia & Montenegro Bosnia & Hercegovina Poland Ukraine
Serbia & Montenegro Croatia Poland Lithuania
Serbia & Montenegro Macedonia Poland Germany
Serbia & Montenegro Switzerland Poland Ireland
Croatia Bosnia & Hercegovina Lithuania Ireland
Croatia Serbia & Montenegro Latvia Ireland
Croatia Germany    

Suffice to say, it’s a tad more complex with 36 countries…

The three blocs that are more often cited as skewing Eurovision results are as follows:

Scandinavian Ex-Soviet Ex-Yugo
Sweden Russia Serbia & Montenegro
Norway Belarus Serbia
Denmark Ukraine Macedonia
Iceland Georgia Bosnia & Hercegovina
Finland Armenia Croatia
Estonia Azerbaijan Slovenia
  Latvia Montenegro
  Lithuania  
  Estonia  

And if it wasn’t perplexing enough…between 2004 and 2015 not all countries within a bloc competed in all years. Nonetheless, if we look at the Ex-Soviet states (and later, ex-Yugo states) in 2004, we have some results to consider, both in terms of qualifying out of the semi-final and final rankings in the grand final. In the table below, PQ means pre-qualified for Grand Final and therefore received no semi-final score:

Ex-Soviet Semi-final rank Grand final rank Points to Russia
Russia PQ 11th n/a
Belarus 19th n/a 12
Ukraine 2nd 1st (winner) 10
Latvia 17th n/a 10
Lithuania 16th n/a 8
Estonia 11th n/a 8

Even when Russia has been pre-qualified for a Grand Final it’s easy to discern a skew. Their 2004 entry earned 67 points on Saturday night, of which 48 came from their diaspora. Another 12 points came from Israel and Cyprus, both of which also have significant Russophone communities—leaving only 7 points awarded from other countries. The absence of support from nearly every other participating country indicates the strong possibility of a diaspora effect.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

Folks who live in the ESC “bubble” each May sometimes parrot certain catch. Perhaps none is as ubiquitous as “_____’s song isn’t very good, but it’s ______ so they’ll qualify.” In something of a paradox, two of the countries about which this is said frequently are (at least technically) at war with one another: the ex-Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Armenia. They’re both interesting cases when discussion diaspora: each has one, but their impact on the scoreboard have been very different.

Armenia made its début in 2006; since then they have racked up five top 10 Grand Final results and qualified every year except 2011. Armenia has a large, committed, global diaspora; whenever I’ve met Armenia diaspores, they remind me of my own Irish diaspora experience growing up. Like Ireland, Armenia a history of tragedy and colonialism, a tradition of mass migration, and a tenacity to both integrate in new societies whilst remaining resolutely distinct.

Let’s take a look at the Armenia diaspora within the Eurovision zone:

Country Points to AR in Semi-finals Points to AR in Grand Finals 12 points in Grand Finals to AR
Russia 66 67 ’06, ’08,’10,
France 41 67 .08, ‘14
Georgia 36 68 ’07, ’08, ’14, ‘15
Netherlands 48 56 ’08, ’10,
Belgium 49 51 ’06, ’08,

Across nine years of participation the average score from Russia means being ranked fourth place or higher most years. The rest of the diaspora isn’t quite as generous in the semi-finals. But look at how high the grand final score are—and how frequently the Armenians got douze points from these countries.

Sirusho’s Qele Qele in 2008 finished third overall; in 2014 Aram MP3 finished fourth with Not Alone. So we can accept those top scores…somewhat. In 2012 they failed to qualify for the Grand Final. And, in 2011 Armenia withdrew, since the Azeri’s were hosting. Speaking of which…

Azerbaijan has done even better than their ostensive enemies. Since their début in 2008 they have scored one victory and five other top 10 placements. And every single one of their entries have qualified for Saturday night, though they’re no longer racking up the massive scores of a few years ago.

Let’s take a look at the Azeri diaspora within the Eurovision zone:

Country Points to AZ in Semi-finals Points to AZ in Grand Finals 12 points in Grand Finals to AZ
Russia 62 52 ’11, ’13
Turkey 50 48 ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12
Georgia 59 39 ’13
Ukraine 27 67 ’09, ’10, ‘12

Turkey was the Azeri’s biggest supporter, until they withdrew after 2012; aside from a sizeable Azeri ex-pat community, they share a common linguistic heritage. Ukraine, Russia and then Georgia offered strong support in Grand Finals.

Given that the Azeris notched up five consecutive years of top 5 results between 2009 and 2013, the only really instructive years are 2014 and 2015, when their Grand Final scores were much, much lower. No diaspora douze points, but average semi-final scores that were good: 7.7 from Russia, 8.2 from Turkey, 9.2 from Georgia, but only 3.3 from Ukraine. However Ukraine has been much more generous towards Azerbaijan in Grand Finals.

Other diaspora, and not

There are several other cases we could look at, particularly in relation to large ex-pat communicties from central and eastern Europe: Albanians in Greece, Italy, Macedonia and Serbia; Romanians and Moldovans in Spain and Italy; Poles in Lithuanian, Ireland and UK. We might take a look at those numbers in the future.

Given the focus here as been on what qualifies as a diaspora, it’s important to debunk other sorts of voting patterns that do not count as a diaspora. Whilst the Scandinavian bloc tends to support its other members—particularly with respect to qualification from semi-finals—there isn’t much evidence of diaspora voting. They more accurately represent a common cultural sphere, which seems to be stronger in the era of English language entries. There are ample opportunities to gain familiarity with each others’ Eurovision entries well before May each year. Exposure helps, particularly for songs that might not be as “instant.”

Even more complex are the Balkans, particularly the former constituent republics of Yugoslavia. There are some genuine diaspora: Serbs in Bosnia, Croatian, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Croats in Bosnia and Serbia. And Bosniaks in Montenegro and Serbia. But, there is also a shared cultural sphere, with satellite television networks serving the region, which also means ex-Yugo entries are often on the airways in the neighbouring countries weeks before each year’s Contest.

Do diaspora have an impact on the Eurovision? Yes, in specific ways. Perhaps in a way that advantages certain countries’ chances of qualifying out of a semi-final. But not to an extent that has led to victory. Yet.

Reference

Saffran, W. (2005). The Jewish Diaspora in a Comparative and Theoretical Perspective. Israel Studies, 10(1), 36-60.

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