How To Deal With Rigged National Finals

On February 12th, 2022, Ukraine held it’s national selection for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, commonly known as Vidbir, and after a messy reveal of the public vote, Alina Pash was declared the winner and Ukraine’s representative in Turin. While Pash was celebrating her victory, the camera panned to another competitor, Kalush Orchestra, who had won the public vote but did not have enough support from the professional juries to overtake Pash in the final rankings. Instead of the polite, congratulatory smiles their competitors gave the winner, their looks went beyond just disappointment at the result. This could have been because the judges docked points from them for using “aesthetics of people from the woods and mountains” even though the top two jury-vote finishers did exactly the same and seemed to be rewarded for it. 

The members of Kalush Orchestra are threatening to sue the public broadcaster for falsifying the final results after claiming that they refused to show them documents with the results of the vote. Fans of the contest, including one well-known Ukrainian TV presenter, voiced their concerns about how the votes were revealed and counted, and questioned why Jamala, a jury member and herself a former Eurovision winner, did not press Alina Pash on a past controversy involving Crimea, despite doing so vocally to other contestants back in 2019.

While the evidence for any kind of rigging is circumstantial at best, it’s safe to say that many are questioning the validity of the result, eroding trust in Vidbir, which is often highly praised for the quality and diversity of its performances. It is also not the only accusation of rigging in this national final season: an investigation into the disqualification of a contestant in San Marino’s national final unveiled a number of potential conflicts of interest and other issues. 

This piece is not meant to investigate or litigate either of these cases. Instead, these events bring up a question that I want to dive into further. I wrote a piece last year about the European Broadcasting Union’s strong governance structure when it comes to the Eurovision Song Contest itself, but after Vidbir, I wondered why this good governance doesn’t extend to the way member broadcasters conduct their selections for Eurovision. Accusations of foul play in national selections occur every now and then but the EBU seems to remain silent unless the final selection violates the rules of the contest (i.e. Belarus 2021, Georgia 2009, etc.). We’ve seen in those cases that the EBU is perfectly capable of sanctioning its members, so why doesn’t it more proactively ensure that its members are keeping things clean and fair?

One reason is that the EBU, by design, has very little control over how broadcasters conduct their selections for Eurovision. The rules say that “it is at each broadcaster’s sole discretion to determine who will represent their country at the Eurovision Song Contest,” and though they encourage the involvement of the public, they do not actually have any say in how a broadcaster chooses their representative. Some choose through a televised contest, others internally, and each country has its own rules governing who is eligible to compete. Estonia, for example, requires that at least 50% of a song’s writers are Estonian. After the debacle in 2019, Ukraine banned anyone who has performed in Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since the occupation, though they seemingly broke their own rule this year.

In many ways, the EBU’s hands-off approach is actually meant to level the playing field for the countries competing in the contest. San Marino, for example, does not have the same resources to conduct a major event like Italy’s Festival di Sanremo or Sweden’s Melodifestivalen, nor does it have a particularly well-developed or extensive music scene in the same way Italy or Sweden do. But there is no rule saying they can’t send Flo Rida. It also allows countries to test out different ways of selecting their entries to try for the best possible results, such as Germany or the UK, neither of whom have a consistent national selection process.

The downside is, of course, that there is little oversight of these processes to control for nepotism, conflicts of interest, or other forms of corruption that might taint the selection or lead to a scandal. Corruption is endemic in several participating countries, and this rule allows the EBU to look the other way and keep their hands clean if an issue does arise. 

But allowing bad practices to fester has consequences. If trust in a national selection process is eroded, then viewers might have little interest in tuning in to it or even Eurovision itself. If the selection process across multiple countries is seen as corrupt, these perceptions will naturally filter up the ladder to the EBU itself, even from viewers in countries where this isn’t an issue. Artists who might otherwise be excited to compete for a spot at Eurovision may be discouraged from doing so if they feel the process is rigged, leading to lower-quality entries. A lack of local pride in a winning entry that isn’t seen as legitimate could have effects on the way the contest is run the next year. Quality and viewership could both suffer if these issues aren’t addressed.

So what are the EBU’s options? Creating a uniform national selection process for all participating broadcasters would put some countries at a major disadvantage, so that is probably not the way to go. 

Instead, the EBU could create strict guidelines specifically addressing conflicts of interest, nepotism, and other potential issues that could arise in different national selection formats. To support this, they could implement a monitoring mechanism to ensure these processes are conducted smoothly and fairly, which could be as simple as assigning an EBU representative to closely monitor all aspects of a national selection. Finally, the EBU should have the ability and willingness to investigate complaints and, if violations are found, to sanction the broadcaster and enforce the guidelines they created. 

Unfortunately, this means that the EBU has to be willing to commit the time and resources to develop the necessary guidelines and mechanisms, as well as get the participating countries to agree. This is no small feat, but a stronger governance regime could build trust in the process and increase viewership and excitement for the song contest – a worthy investment if there ever was one!