Bloc Rockin’ Beats – how Scandinavia became the dominant force at the Eurovision Song Contest

With parties bitterly divided over Europe, a voting system widely considered unfair, and tactical voting skewing the outcome, it’s clearly that time of year again. The 60th annual Eurovision Song Contest is being held in Vienna following Conchita Wurst’s victory last year in Copenhagen with Rise Like A Phoenix.

This year Sweden is the favourite at the bookmakers, with Måns Zelmerlöw’s Heroes leading the betting at 2/1, making him the shortest odds favourite since 2012 when Loreen, also of Sweden, was priced at 6/4 and won easily with 372 points ahead of second placed Russia on 259. Should Zelmerlöw triumph, then it will continue Scandinavia’s recent dominance in the competition, with four of the seven winners since Alexander Rybak’s crushing win for Norway in 2009 hailing from Scandinavia.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Throughout much of the previous decade, it was the nations of the former Soviet Union (four wins and three second placed finishes from 2001 to 2008), and to a lesser extent the former Yugoslavia who dominated the contest. Accusations of foul play were rampant, with this 2008 Daily Mail article typical of sentiment at the time, when it was considered that tactical voting from countries of the former USSR would lead to the likes of Russia and Ukraine dominating the competition in perpetuity. Terry Wogan, disillusioned with the way the contest was going, retired from his duties as Eurovision commentator.

In fact, 2008 was the high water mark for former Eastern bloc countries in the competition, with only one winner from the region (Azerbaijan in 2011) in the years since, with Scandinavian or German speaking countries winning on every other occasion. An important development from 2009 onwards was the end of televote-only results, with countries being compelled to use juries in addition to the popular vote when determining points. The impact that this change had on Russia, for example, was fairly dramatic. The two maps below show the average points awarded to Russia (where they qualified, disregarding semi-finals).

Russia Votes Received

It would appear likely that the inclusion of juries in the voting process has curbed the tendency of, for instance, Belarus to give maximum points to Russia at every opportunity. But it is also apparent the extent to which Russia has lost the ability to secure votes from other regions. Scandinavian countries have been a lot cooler to Russian entries in recent years, and they are attracting a lot fewer votes from countries of the former Yugoslavia, and other central European nations such as Poland, Hungary and Romania. A similar trend can be seen for another noughties Eurovision powerhouse, Serbia (and its predecessor states); a decrease in intra-bloc loyalty compounded by falling support across Europe generally.

Serbia Votes Received

In the cases of both Serbia and Russia, it is apparent the tactical voting wasn’t the only reason behind their successes in the last decade, although it played an important role. The key to their success was to have both loyal support from their bloc, and also appeal to countries outside their home regions. For both Serbia and Russia, they have had a collapse in regional loyalty on top of falling from favour with other regions.

However, the extent to which these blocs exchange votes between themselves is still strong. The graph below shows how many intra-bloc points were awarded in Eurovision finals as a percentage of the total (i.e. if there were three countries in the final then the maximum points available would have been (10 + 12) x 3 = 66 points). The televoting reforms didn’t have a dramatic effect on intra-bloc voting, but whereas Russia and Serbia used to be the principal beneficiaries of this voting pattern, the benefit of tactical voting now tends to be more widely dispersed.

Bloc Loyalty Chart

The Scandinavian countries, Sweden and Denmark in particular, have adopted Russia’s model of cross-continental appeal, coupled with a supportive home bloc, to noticeable success. The map showing average points awarded to Sweden by country shows how bloc loyalty has increased for the Nordic nations since 2008, whilst appealing to voters and juries across the continent.

Sweden Votes Received

Throughout the last decade, the importance of tactical voting was arguably overplayed. Had none of the votes of the ten countries of the former Soviet Union counted, then the winner would only have been different on two occasions; Serbia would have won in 2004 instead of Ukraine, and Greece would have won in 2008 instead of Russia. Had none of the votes of former Yugoslav countries been taken into account, then the result of only one contest would have changed, with Ukraine winning in 2007 instead of Serbia.

The key to Eurovision success has always been wide appeal across Europe, rather than solely relying on a supportive home bloc. Take, for instance, Ireland’s performance in Eurovision finals since 2009. They can usually rely on the UK for votes, and enjoyed some largely Jedward fuelled success in Scandinavia, but they have had practically no joy east of the Oder in six years.

Ireland Votes Since 2009

Ireland has not quite reciprocated the UK’s Eurovision loyalty, but in contrast to Ireland, votes for the UK have been largely consistent across the continent. Unfortunately for them, it has generally been consistently bad.

UK Votes Since 2009

One could draw from this that the UK doesn’t face any structural geopolitical bias against them at the contest, but in fact their songs have been rubbish, and it’s hard to see much being different this year.

Short priced favourites have done well in recent years at the Eurovision Song Contest, and Sweden’s entry this year is a known quantity across much of the continent. Heroes has been streamed 14.9m times on Spotify at the time of writing, more than the other 39 songs in the competition combined (10.3m). Tactical voting is not the force it once was. If the UK or Ireland ever want to taste Eurovision glory again, then the battle for streams and views will need to be won before the contest even starts.