Research: The Eurovision audience that votes for ethnic songs, votes for radical right-wing parties

For most of its 150 million-plus viewers, the Eurovision song contest is an unmissable annual extravaganza of glitter and tight trousers, a joyful celebration of silliness and a reminder of the impenetrability of other nations’ tastes in pop music.

For three political scientists from the universities of Amsterdam and Tilburg, it is a massive mine of precious data that has led them – they argue in an academic paper published this month – to a novel conclusion about the populist radical right.


“Everyone knows that Eurovision reflects broad geopolitical trends,” said Alessandro Nai, co-author, with Elizabeth Young and Linda Bos, of Pop Populism: Ethno-traditionalism Beyond National Borders and the Populist Radical Right.

Neighbours such as Greece and Cyprus, or Sweden and Denmark, invariably mark each other high, while previous studies have identified voting blocs reflecting cultural and political ties – in the former Soviet bloc countries, for example.

“But this research shows how super-important Eurovision data – dozens of countries, each awarding the other points, over a period of many years – can be in revealing strong, structural political dynamics through voting patterns,” Nai said.

Crunching 30,000 data points generated by 700-plus songs from 40 countries over 20 years, the study found that countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.

“The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation,” Nai said.

“We wondered whether seeing expressions of local identity – traditional costumes, ancient instruments, folk music, the choice of the national language – but from other countries, would act as a cue for support, and it did.”

The researchers found that fully 28% of all Eurovision entries from 1999 (when contestants were able to choose which language to sing in) to 2019 contained at least one such ethno-traditional element, with some featuring all three.

“By matching the votes for these songs against the percentage of MPs from populist, radical right parties in the voting countries, we found a distinct bump where rightwing populists have a higher share of seats in parliament,” for example in Hungary, Serbia, North Macedonia and Turkey, he said.

The results were controlled for multiple factors, including membership of one of Eurovision’s better-known voting blocs, and the vote increase in each case was a modest two to three percentage points, Nai said – but it was consistent.

“What we suggest,” he said, “is that within the supposedly inward-looking, nativist worldview of the populist radical right, foreign expressions of ethno-traditionalism are seen as allies within a broader normative struggle: domestic populist sentiment actually drives Eurovision voting patterns”.

The authors warn that the results should be viewed with caution, not least because there is no data on individual viewers, their support for populist, radical right parties, and how they voted for ethno-traditionalist foreign songs.

“But it really provides an interesting new insight into the relationship between nativism, radical right populism and foreign ethno-traditionalism,” said Nai. “Plus, it was a lot of fun. We got to watch 20 years of Eurovision entries.”

Source: The Guardian