Turkey Turns its Back on Eurovision

Turkey’s decision to withdraw from this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, announced in December 2012, came as a surprise to many seasoned Eurovision fans. Turkey has competed in the contest in all but three of the past 37 years, peaking in 2003 when Sertab Erener’s belly dancing-filled number ‘Everyway That I Can’ won the competition and fuelled a spate of orientally-inclined dance numbers, including the winners of the two following years, Ukraine and Greece. Since its victory brought the competition to Istanbul for the first time in its history, Turkey has remained one of the stronger Eurovision participants, finishing in the Top Ten in six of the nine competitions it has entered.

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For the uninitiated, the Eurovision Song Contest is a televised competition in which each European country is represented by an artist or group that performs an original song. After the performances, each participant nation then awards points in ascending order to 10 other countries, and the country with the most points wins the competition and gains the right to host it in the following year.  In 2004 semi-finals were introduced due to increasing numbers of countries taking part.

The Europe represented in the song contest is not the original 6 or even the current 27 group of EU member states, but the broadest swathe of those who might be considered culturally European: hence we have Israel, the countries of the Caucusus and Turkey. Inclusion is based on membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which is extended to every country within the so-called ‘European Broadcasting Area’ – including the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (however, due in part to the participation of Israel, Arab countries steer clear of the contest). The post-war founding principles of the Eurovision Song Contest were not dissimilar to those of the EU, and arose from a desire to bring unity to a divided and war-torn continent – albeit through a common love of  sequins rather than through a common market. Eurovision forms a frothy, light-entertainment version of the geopolitical Europe hemmed in by either the Urals or the Copenhagen Criteria. Which is why Turkey’s rejection of this pageant this year has aroused consternation.

The competition was first held in Lugano in 1956 with only seven participating countries, each country’s vote was decided by a national jury. True democracy came late to Eurovision. In 1997, several countries started to experiment with televoting and in the following year the jury vote was abolished and replaced entirely with the system of the national popular vote. Whilst in theory this made the competition fairer and less corruptible, in practice it has yielded certain recurring voting biases. The popular perception is that countries in Scandinavia, the Baltic, the former USSR and the Balkans tend to favour their neighbours in the popular vote, and that this gives them the upper hand: indeed, between 1999 and 2009 the winner only twice came from outside one of those four regions. In the context of recent Eurovisions, Ataturk’s famous maxim might be better applied to the countries of Western Europe: the only friend a Brit has is another Brit (and since the system precludes voting for oneself, a low score has so often been their fate).

Tensions about these voting patterns have been brewing over the last decade. The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the contest, is chiefly financed by the ‘Big Four’ countries of Germany, France, Spain and the UK (expanded to the ‘Big Five’ in 2011 to include Italy). Due to their larger financial contribution, all five automatically progress to the final of the competition, which has a much larger televisual audience than either of the semi-finals. After the introduction of the televote in 1998, the Big Four, all countries with no traditional voting partners, regularly finished in the bottom five, angering their viewing publics and leading to fears that they would withdraw funding for a competition whose dice were loaded against them. In response, the voting rules were amended in 2009 to reintroduce a jury vote that would count for 50% of the total, with the televote continuing to make up the other 50%. This was expanded to the semifinals in the following year and has remained in place since, allowing formerly weak contestants Norway and Germany to win in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

Turkish national broadcaster TRT’s decision to withdraw, according to a December press release, was based on two principle objections – firstly, the automatic right of the Big Five to qualify for the final, which it deemed to be inherently unfair, and, secondly, the reintroduction of the jury vote which it believed to be a response to the poor performance of the Five, who in any case already benefit from their automatic qualification.

TRT’s press release also acknowledges that Turkey’s strong showing in the 2000s came largely as a result the introduction of audience voting: “The success enjoyed by Turkish contestants in the 2000s is in large part thanks to the televoting”. What it does not acknowledge, however, is whether this success can be attributed to the fact that the European viewing public was suddenly able to express its long-standing love for Turkish music through the introduction of universal suffrage (where previously, one presumes, it had been thwarted by juries who were inexplicably biased against it?), or, instead, to the much more plausible explanation that Turkey’s large European diaspora has guaranteed it top points from certain countries, yielding strong placings even in years where it has entered mediocre songs.

Examination of voting patterns lends credibility to the latter explanation. In 2003, Turkey’s victorious year, it received the maximum of twelve points from Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and the second highest award of ten from Germany and France — all countries with Turkish minorities numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In fact the trio of France, Germany and the Netherlands continued to award Turkey top points in every single one of the following seven years of the competition. That Turkey benefited from a diaspora vote until the reintroduction of the jury is strongly suggested by comparing Table 1 and Table 2 below.

Table 1:

Countries awarding high points to Turkey between 2003 and 2008.

Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 14.18.30

(Each country awards points from 1-8 and then 10 and 12 to the ten countries with the most televotes out of the c. 25 competing)

Table 2:

Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 14.17.18

In fact, as Table 3 shows, Turkey continued to benefit from its traditional voting partners even after the introduction of the 50% jury vote rule in 2009, and additionally started to attract higher points from Macedonia and Bulgaria, both countries with large Turkish minorities. Furthermore, following the debut of Azerbaijan in Belgrade in 2008, Turkey and Azerbaijan have exchanged 12 points in every single year, becoming as predictably unoriginal as Greece and Cyprus in this regard. This pattern was only interrupted in 2011 when, for the first time since the semi-final was introduced in 2004, Turkey failed to qualify for the final (Turkey was still eligible to vote, however, and gave Azerbaijan the full complement of 12 points as expected).

Table 3:

Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 14.19.44

2011’s unexpectedly poor performance alone might have shocked Turkey into withdrawing from the competition, however, as can be seen in the Table, in three out of four years since the reintroduction of the jury vote, Turkey has still managed to finish in the top four. So, the question remains – why has Turkey decided only now, following a decent showing last year, to quit the competition?

One possible explanation is financial. The EBU demands fees in the tens of thousands of euros for participation in the contest. National broadcasters must also organise and pay for a (usually televised) pre-selection, in addition to the costs of sending the act to perform at the contest and promoting the song beforehand. With broadcasters’ budgets being cut across the continent in the wake of the financial crisis, other countries such as Poland and Portugal have also withdrawn from the contest this year, citing budgetary difficulties. Since the advent of the global financial crisis in 2008, the four contests have been won (and therefore hosted) by the relatively solvent Nordic trio of Norway, Sweden and Germany, and oil-rich Azerbaijan. The fact that these are all among the very few countries which could afford to host the competition without significant outside support set some conspiratorial tongues a-wagging – but many an indebted Southern or Eastern European country must have breathed a sigh of relief when victory passed them by.  As entering the contest runs the risk of winning it, a country’s only sure-fire way of avoiding this expensive outcome is to withdraw – either that, or deliberately enter a terrible song, an idea which inspired an episode of Irish comedy Father Ted, where the protagonist priest is unexpectedly selected to represent Ireland in a Eurovision-like competition with his amateurish, no-hoper melody “My Lovely Horse” – and predictably finishes with nul points 1. But if Eurovision is a sturdy bellwether of its participants’ finances, then in the month when Erdoğan has proudly finished paying off the last of Turkey’s debt to the IMF, and Moody’s ratings agency upgraded the Turkish market to investment grade for the first time, why would Turkey not want to invest in keeping up its European profile?

Financial considerations might have been more likely to influence Turkey in the direction of taking part: why should this Olympic 2020 aspirant country pass up the opportunity to participate in (and therefore have a chance to host) a contest which is watched by a global audience of hundreds of millions?. Turkey has been strongly focussed on increasing its global soft power in recent years (the country was ranked 20th in the world in a 2012 soft power survey by Monocle Magazine, up from 23rd in 2011). This paradox has not gone unnoticed by auguries of the AKP’s increasing conservative tendencies – the more conspiratorial of whom populate online Eurovision forums, suggesting that anti-western and homophobic sentiment is the real motivation for the withdrawal. Eurovision is well known for its large gay following, and the last Muslim-majority country to host the competition, Azerbaijan in 2012, attracted the opprobrium of Iran, with prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari warning that “The dance party [Eurovision] and the gay pride will attract all sorts of anti-Islamic groups and perverts”. Azerbaijan’s experience presents another potential caution: rather than the PR coup they had hoped for when hosting the contest, Azerbaijan’s human rights record and attitude towards gay rights were both subject to close international scrutiny, and perhaps a desire to avoid similar criticism was also a small factor in TRT’s decision.

When Turkey’s recent censorship record includes the banning of YouTube, protecting its own citizens from tonight’s licentious display might also be part of the agenda. That theory gained further weight on Wednesday, with the sudden announcement that Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT would not be exercising their right to show the performance. They were suggestions that this owes to poor predicted ratings, but the media has been awash with reports that it is the Finnish entrant’s gay kiss that has brought about this sudden change of heart. Protesting her country’s slow progress on gay marriage equality, Krista Siegfrids is expected to punctuate an otherwise strangely patriarchal song by planting a kiss on the lips of one of her backing dancers.

To longterm Eurovision fans, this recalls the furore surrounding Russian soft-core duo Tatu’s antics in the year that Turkey was victorious. There were rumours before the competition of an impending lesbian kiss between the pair, amongst other ‘racy’ antics, and in that instance it was the EBU which put its foot down. This time around, the competing theories swirling around TRT’s are hard to parse, because they seem so transparently to be the product of competing agendas: no one is more vocal on the subject of the gay kiss than the Turkish LGBT rights group LGBTT, while there has been suggestion from tweeters sympathetic to the government that the decision not to broadcast is out of respect for the recent bombing on the Syrian border in Reyhanlı – an event that inspired its own much more pernicious media blackout earlier this week.

An image which went viral earlier this week in response to the media blackout which followed the Reyhanlı bombings.

In a year when the perennial anxieties about Turkey’s geopolitical orientation have reached a fever pitch, owing partly to the AKP government’s overtures towards the China-dominated security grouping the SCO, can Turkey’s 2013 Eurovision drought be read as a more significant indication of shifting political alignment? These questions are all but irrelevant to the sizeable constituency who sympathise with TRT’s decision on the grounds of good taste: they disdain Eurovision for its kitsch, bad singing and leaden lyrics, and for one night at least, the Turkish viewing public will be spared those ills. Whatever the motive, the end result is that one of Eurovision’s longest standing and most dependably entertaining participants will be absent from this year’s competition. Moreover, millions of Turks across Europe (not to mention 10 million Azeris) will have to think of a new country to vote for this year. Perhaps Turkish Eurovision fans from Stavanger to Stuttgart are even now looking to the mother country and asking, “Avrupalılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız?”

Notes:

  1. Ireland won the competition three times in a row in the early 90s and requested that they not have to host the contest if it was won a fourth time. Fortunately for them, Norway was victorious in 1995, but victory and therefore the contest returned to Ireland in Oslo.

Jacob Leland

Jacob Leland has worked as a Russian teacher, a PR writer for Mikhail Gorbachev and now runs an Educational business in China. He has long been an avid defender of the Eurovision song contest from British cynicism.