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Eurovision 2019: Why isn't Turkey taking part?

Controversy has swirled around this year's competition in Israel, but Turkey's abstention is for surprising reasons
Eurovision 2012 contestants from Turkey celebrate after the second semi-final in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, on 25 May 2012. (AFP)
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Whether one follows the Eurovision singing contest or not, it has been hard to escape the uproar surrounding this year's competition, taking place in Israel 40 years after the country first hosted the event.

This year's edition in Tel Aviv has sparked calls for boycott, as its opponents have argued that the Eurovision serves to whitewash Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and its violations of human rights.

Amid the outcry, Turkey has once again decided to abstain from the competition, but a Turkish singer will nonetheless be participating in the competition, highlighting the country's unusual relationship with Eurovision.

Turkish history at Eurovision

In 1979, Israel hosted the Eurovision contest for the first time, holding the event in Jerusalem. Arab countries had previously called for a boycott of the contest over Israel's participation, but that year the choice of Jerusalem as a venue was a new red line to be crossed.

Eurovision 2019: Why is Israel hosting the song contest?

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The name of the singing contest suggests it’s a European affair, so why is Israel, a country in the Middle East, able to participate and why is it hosting this year’s contest?

Eurovision 2019: Why is Israel hosting the song contest?
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Eligibility for Eurovision is not based on geography but membership of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises the event, and the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation is a member.

Technically, this means that Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia are also eligible to participate.

In fact, Morocco took part in 1980 after Israel withdrew because the date of the contest overlapped with the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Israel first entered Eurovision in 1973 and has won the competition four times, including last year when Netta Barzilai won in Portugal. It previously hosted the event in 1979 and 1999, both times in Jerusalem.

Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim country to take part that year, had already selected a song, Maria Rita Epik's Seni Seviyorum ("I'm in love").

However, with the show scheduled only a few years after the 1973 war, Arab countries put pressure on Ankara to withdraw. Turkey's then prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, a leftist politician known for his pro-Palestinian sensitivities, relented. Turkey withdrew and released a statement reiterating Turkey's support for the Palestinian people and demanding that Israel cease its occupation of territories captured in 1967.

Some observers argue that Turkey's attitude towards Eurovision has always been political, including in later decades.

"If you check the songs Turkey sent to the contest from the 1970s and onwards, they were all trying to prove that Turkey is a Western [country], modern and peaceful," Yildiray Ogur, a columnist at Karar daily who has written several articles on Eurovision's history, told Middle East Eye.

"There has been always an internal pressure about it; Turks didn't want to be ashamed in front of Europeans. So they were very strict about everything."

Turkey's star in the contest rose in late 1990s. As Turkey accelerated its European Union negotiations and moved into the formal negotiations for accession, Turkey's success in Eurovision also increased. Turkey won the contest in 2003 with an English language song.

But the fallout of increasingly strained negotiations with the EU has coincided with Turkey taking the competition less seriously, Ogur argued.

"Under current ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP], the songs became English, and Turks started to feel more relaxed about the contest," he said. "One can argue that with Ankara's relations with Europe fraying, Turkish officials also lost interest."

Turkish boycott

While Turkey is not taking part in this year's competition, the reason for it abstaining is unrelated to Israel.

Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), the local broadcaster for Eurovision, has abstained from the contest since 2013 over changes in voting protocols, which it argues are politicised.

In 2009, Eurovision amended its rules and diminished the influence of audience tele-voting in the system.

Since 2016, the contest implements what it calls a "positional voting system," meaning each country now has separate audience votes and jury votes to score the participants.

Turkish officials have denounced the change as unfair, and has labelled the automatic qualification of the competition's five largest funders as unjust.

A Turk for San Marino

Ankara's decision to abstain hasn't stopped other Turks from finding ways to join the contest. Turkish singer Serhat Hacipasalioglu is representing San Marino this year, qualifying for the final, set to take place on Saturday.

Eurovision remains popular in Turkey. For example, the official YouTube broadcast for the semi-finals in Tel Aviv was among the trending videos on YouTube in the country, and Eurovision becomes a nationally trending topic on Twitter whenever it is on.

Some Twitter users have found consolation in Serhat's performance.

"Public opinion in Turkey isn't aware but things are happening in Europe. Serhat brought San Marino to the finals with his successful performance. Very serious success. Congrats. This is something that makes Turkey proud as well," said Michael Kuyumcu, a Turkish communications academic.

While bookmakers say the odds of Serhat winning are slim, and Turkey's boycott of the competition shows no sign of ending any time soon, the country's fascination with Eurovision lives on.