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Eurovision: Politics, Vote Buying and Counting to 12 in French

David Mac Dougall
Eurovision: Politics, Vote Buying and Counting to 12 in French
Eurovision: Politics, Vote Buying and Counting to 12 in French
Is it possible to buy your way to Eurovision glory? Is tactical voting still a problem? What's it like to host or perform at one of the world's biggest television events? This week on Newsmakers, host David Mac Dougall talks to Mikko Leppilampi, Axel Ehnström and Tobias Larsson, as the 61st Eurovision Song Contest gets underway in Stockholm.

It's been ten years since Finland won the Eurovision Song Contest, when Lordi memorably captured the votes with their 'Hard Rock Hallelujah' anthem.

So has the event changed in the last decade? As the 61st Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Stockholm this week, Eurovision expert Tobias Larsson says the old habits of countries trading votes with each other are alive and well - and might even be open to manipulation.

Speaking on this week's special Eurovision episode of Newsmakers, HSTV's weekly English-language current affairs show, Larsson says regional voting "has always been a big thing".

"Back in the 60s and 70s, everyone was laughing at us, the countries of the Nordic region, because we were always voting for each other".

"I think it's just normal that countries that share the same cultural background, and above all, countries that have the same stars" would vote for each other, he adds.

But is it possible to buy your way to Eurovision glory? How easy is it to trick the system? Larsson cites a 2013 example where apparent voter fraud was uncovered.

"The case that came to public knowledge, it was in Lithuania, where agents from one country [...] they were in Lithuania, urging students to come and sit down and have a Eurovision party, and they were given several different SIM cards". Larson says the students were allegedly encouraged to vote multiple times with different SIM cards.

The biggest impact of efforts to skew the Eurovision vote could hypothetically happen in smaller countries, says the Sweden-born expert. "Small countries like Lithuania, Estonia, Malta, Cyprus, Israel, it's very easy to swing a televote there, especially when you don't make it to the final" he says. "The countries that are out in the semi final, then the ratings go down, fewer people vote, then it's really easy to swing a televote".

The European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella organisation which oversees production of the annual song contest, takes any allegations of attempted vote manipulation seriously, according to Larsson. "There is a central computer in Germany that counts all the televotes" he explains. "They're programmed to see if something strange is going on".

In recent years, the EBU has introduced more transparency and accountability measures to try and stamp out any attempts at voter fraud. But with potentially millions of euros in extra tourist revenue, and an international PR boost for countries and cities that host the show, the stakes are certainly high.

"It's pretty serious" says Mikko Leppilampi, who co-hosted the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest when it was staged in Helsinki. "The forum is so huge, you reach so many people" says the actor. "The economic benefits for the country and the city that gets to host it" are important, he adds.

Leppilampi recalls that he was selected to host the live shows, in front of a global audience estimated to be 120 million people, after a series of auditions and call-backs.

"I was pretty new to television and hosting at that time, so we just did the auditions, like everyone else" explains Leppilampi, who is currently filming the new Finnish political drama 'President'.

"I think it was probably every single male performer who had been on television or acting got auditioned for that and it ended up probably being the EBU mostly who selected us".

Leppilampi says that although he knew about the global reach of the Eurovision Song Contest, he didn't fully appreciate it until he was caught up with rehearsals and involved in the shows. "I was scared. I thought I was going to ruin my acting career if I screw up" he says. "I also thought that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It doesn't happen every year that Finland gets to host. So I was very lucky to be in that position".

Leppilampi, and co-host Jaana Pelkonen who is now a National Coalition Party MP, spent six weeks intensively learning French, so they could deliver parts of their dialogue convincingly, a requirement of the contest.

Another Finn who experienced first hand the excitement of Eurovision is Axel Ehnström, who was the Finnish contestant in 2011 when he sang his ecology-themed song under the name Paradise Oskar.

Performing first in front of 37,000 people in Dusseldorf, Germany, Ehnström says it was a stand-out moment for him, due to the size of the venue and reaction of the crowd. The staging for his simple ballad about a young boy who wants to save the world, featured a large planet Earth rising behind Ehnström as he sang and played guitar.

"It was probably a moment that is strongest in my memory, because the venue was massive, it was 37,000 people in a football arena, and I couldn't see the whole screen, the planet going up, but I could just hear a big hum in the whole stadium and like wow, and clapping and cheering. That was crazy!" he says.

These days, Ehnström is a songwriter, working with some of Finland's biggest acts. He says he wrote his Eurovision entry in English because that's just something he's always done, and although the last time a non-English language song won the grand prize was in Helsinki in 2007, Ehnström says he doesn't think that singing in English a prerequisite for winning.

"If you write a really good song in any language, it's going to work. And definitely on Eurovision, because it's more about culture and having fun and just something cool, I think any language can work if it's just a song that gets people to dance and feel good" he says.

This year, several countries like France and Italy, who traditionally sing in their native languages perform parts of their songs in English - and are hotly tipped by bookmakers.

The origins of the Eurovision Song Contest can be found in the years following World War Two, when the EBU was set up, and tasked with finding a format that would help bring together the countries of Europe, no matter what side of the battle lines they'd been on just a short time before.

Despite the many problems Europe faces today, including a possible vote to leave the European Union by the United Kingdom, 2007 Eurovision host Mikko Leppilampi says the ideals of the song contest are still relevant.

It's a "way of unifying people, coming together and having a good time" says Leppilampi. "And showing people who don't think the same way, that having a good time and enjoying similar stuff and each other's music is actually more powerful than bringing out a bomb and saying 'that country sucks, and we rule'" he says.

Eurovision expert Tobias Larsson agrees.

"Things are sort of falling apart, we don't know with the European Union, we don't know if the UK are going to opt out our not, we don't know what the future looks like" he says. "So we need unifying factors even more now than we've needed in the last few years".

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