Bloc Party

10 May 2017 Alison Lewis

Bloc Party

This year will be the 62nd time that the Eurovision Song Contest has brought sequins and cheese to audiences around the world. And while things have changed dramatically since its inception, its basic mission has not. To overcome political division through song: still as relevant a vision today as it was in 1956.  

But while the vision is admirable, it can prove more difficult to banish politics from the contest. 

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who organises the contest, expressly forbids any overt political statements. As recently as 2016 they tried to reinforce the “only national flags” rule, by banning supporters of the Ukrainian winner, Jamala, from waving the Crimean Tatar flag during her song about Stalin’s mass deportation of the ethnic Tatar population during WWII.

As predicted, this year’s contest has become embroiled in the intractable international politics of the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In an unprecedented move, the EBU threatened Ukraine with sanctions after they banned Russia’s singer, Yulia Samoylova, from entering the country. Ukraine remained firm that Samoylova was in breach of Ukrainian law when she performed at a concert in Russian-annexed Crimea in 2015. It has led to Russia’s withdrawal from the contest.

But the most political aspect of Eurovision is the voting blocs. The oldest is the (most impartial) western European bloc. Next oldest is the Nordic bloc, followed by the eastern Mediterranean bloc. Since 1990 a strong Balkan voting bloc has emerged, comprising the former Yugoslavian countries and Albania. The newest group is the ex-Soviet or Eastern bloc, consisting of Russia and its former satellite states.

To complicate matters, there are also “friendship pairs”. These include the notorious vote-swapping between Greece and Cyprus, and return voting between the likes of Italy and Albania or Poland and Hungary. 

For newcomers, these blocs can seem bewildering. Australia is not part of any voting bloc. Its connections to Europe are built on the large European immigrant communities and descendants of UK settlers. But how does this translate into votes?

In 2015, Australia’s first entrant, Guy Sebastian, placed fifth. He received most help from Nordic countries and the western European bloc. He was rather less popular with Eastern bloc countries like Armenia, Albania, Azerbaijan and Belarus and the Baltic states. But he did attract good points from some ex-Soviet bloc countries like Hungary, Poland and even Russia. 

With Dami Im’s second placing in 2016, Australia did well with every bloc. We made new friends from Hungary, Malta and Bulgaria, and were even a surprising hit with Albanians.

For fans, the 2016 result felt like Australia was robbed. Dami Im won the jury vote but came fourth in the televote. In truth, discrepancies like these are normal, and fourth in the televote is an outstanding result for a newcomer. The brilliant jury vote was actually helped by an unusual degree of anti-bloc voting. Dami Im was a classy, neutral alternative for juries not wanting to take sides in the battle between Ukraine and Russia. 

So, if Australia was robbed, it wasn’t because of political blocs. We may even have benefitted from the tensions surrounding Russia and Ukraine. 

For 2017, the test for Australia will be to see if it can get by with a little help from its friends, and even win over some new ones.

» Professor Alison Lewis coordinates, with Professor John Hajek, Eurovisions at the University of Melbourne, a course that “looks at Europe through the powerful prism of the Eurovision Song Contest”.

This article first appeared in Ed#536 of The Big Issue. Make sure you grab an edition for more Eurovision content, plus Molly Meldrum writing about ABBA!