Breaking news: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov reelected

by ChessBase
6/2/2006 – The election is over. Delegates from more than 150 national chess federations cast their ballots on Friday in Turin, Italy, to elect the president of the International Chess Federation. The result was a clear victory for the incumbent president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who collected 96 votes, compared to 54 for his challenger Bessel Kok. First assessment.

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The election is over, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the incumbent, President of FIDE was reelected. Now comes the time for reflection on how the result came about, why the sometimes controversial Kalmykian leader was able to prolong his tenure, what went wrong in the challenger's campaign. As a first opinion, written a few day before the election (!), IM David Levy, presents his opinion. Levy is an insider. He served as the FIDE delegate for Scotland for 17 years and was on the Central Committee of FIDE for eight years, and led or participated in a number of FIDE election campaigns in the past. We often do not agree with his assessments (see for instance his recent article on democracy in FIDE), but we have learned to always at least listen. Here is David's assessment.

The Election for FIDE President will be broadcast shortly on the Playchess server,
with GM Yasser Seirawan providing live commentary on the procedure and the results.

Why Kirsan Won

By David Levy

Now that the votes have been counted, it is possible to strip away all the election hype and to take a cold hard look at the reasons why Kirsan Iyumzhinov and his team defeated Bessel Kok and “The Right Move”. The inescapable conclusion is that Bessel never had a chance. But why?

Bessel's greatest strengths also turned out, paradoxically, to be his weaknesses. He had strong support in western Europe but this weighed against him in other parts of the world. Having England, France and Spain on his side contributed three votes to Bessel's total, but how many former colonies of those countries have an almost instinctive reaction against their mother country when it comes to matters of sport? Rather a lot. This is one of the reasons why the Eurocentric nature of Bessel's core support was a negative factor in his cause.

Another of Bessel's strengths is his justifiably outstanding reputation as the promoter and organiser of several very powerful and brilliantly staged tournaments in the early-mid 1980s. This would have been a great asset on his CV if the voters had primarily been grandmasters, but was considerably less of an asset, to say the least, when so many of the voters do not have a single grandmaster in their country. The majority of the FIDE electorate are much more interested in the needs of the weaker Chess nations than in the needs of the strong. For the same reason, Bessel's publicly stated support from many grandmasters was also a weakness. Why should the weaker Chess nations care about the wishes of strong individuals? This question made some of the weaker nations wonder: if Bessel was so interested in the needs of the grandmasters, just how much of his effort would go towards helping their own Chess needs?

Yet another of Bessel's strengths is his highly successful career as a businessman. But building such success in business had not previously allowed Bessel any time to devote to FIDE, and he therefore came to this election without any experience of working within the FIDE structure. This created the serious disadvantage that, prior to the election campaign, Bessel knew few of the 155 FIDE delegates, whereas Kirsan knew most of them.

The strategy of Bessel's campaign also had glaring weaknesses. By accepting the assistance of Yasser Seirawan and Nigel Short, both very strong grandmasters, the campaign emphasized yet again Bessel's affinity with the elite players. And choosing his eminent grandmaster missionaries from the USA and England, countries that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, are not exactly world favourites, was perhaps not the smartest move that Bessel's campaign ticket could have made.

Bessel's campaign also failed to take into account the great importance of face-to-face meetings between the challenger himself and the boards of the Chess federations in the many small member nations in the FIDE fold. Campomanes got this right when he mounted his successful challenge in 1982, travelling hither and thither, visiting most of the smaller FIDE member nations as well as the uncommitted countries and those that might be persuaded to switch their support from the incumbent to his own cause. Bessel did not take this lesson fully on board. He visited some countries, but not nearly enough.

During the closing weeks of the election campaign, the managers of “The Right Move” appeared to grow increasingly desperate and the rhetoric on their web site grew increasingly hostile. At the same time their site published position papers on various topics, only in English, presenting considerable detail on the ideas and plans of “The Right Move” team. But would the electorate be interested in hostile rhetoric or in these copious position papers? No they would not. A more effective way to get their campaign message across would have been to publish brief and simple statements by Bessel, in several languages, saying what he would do if elected President.

For all of his fine qualities and his financial strength, Bessel did not provide any evidence that he would be able to bring significant amounts of outside money into FIDE. His campaign talked of sponsorship, but not a single statement was made by a sponsor who had committed to support FIDE with significant levels of finance. It is one thing to talk of acquiring sponsorship, it is quite another to achieve this goal. Against this, Kirsan has a track record of immense amounts of his own money being donated to FIDE. True, there have been complaints that much of this money has been devoted to grandmaster events, but how his money is best spent is surely up to Kirsan to decide. So what held most sway in the financial debate is that Kirsan has shown time and again his willingness to put his hand in his own pocket on FIDE's behalf, a financial track record that left Bessel standing.

So much for the negatives that dammed Bessel's cause. Kirsan's own campaign team needed to do comparatively little, so strong was Kirsan's grass roots support. Bessel's better looking web site and his overall campaign had a lead in time of a few months before Kirsan's were launched, yet when Kirsan's site went public at the end of March, the election was virtually over, with a 2:1 majority of the committed countries supporting Kirsan. By then it was already too late for Bessel's team to catch up.

So what now? What does this election and its result mean for FIDE in the coming years? Firstly, it has demonstrated convincingly Kirsan's electoral strength and the abject difficulty in FIDE of opposing a long-standing incumbent, even for someone with Bessel's considerable strengths and resources. But it has also shown Kirsan and his team that, while “The Right Move” campaign was never going to be strong enough to topple them, there is within FIDE a very considerable measure of discontent. Kirsan would prefer unity, and hopefully he will strive for greater unity from his position of renewed strength.

Much of the most vociferous opposition to Kirsan has come from grandmasters and is related to his handling of the World Championship. Now that these grandmasters have seen the impossibility of changing the FIDE regime as they had hoped, perhaps they will work harder to build their own area of Chess influence – the ACP – into a body with more influence over the World Championship and other major Chess events. But to do so the ACP will have to find sponsors. If the ACP is able, repeatedly and consistently to bring major sponsors to the table, sufficient sponsorship to make it unnecessary for FIDE to find funds for the World Championship, then and only then will the influence of the grandmasters be felt, and will the ACP be in a position to negotiate with FIDE over the structure and rules for the World Championship. But until the ACP can achieve this goal, the grandmasters must accept that FIDE is the only game in town.

Clearly Bessel Kok has much to offer FIDE. Let us hope that the winning ticket will be magnanimous in its victory and will find some way to harness Bessel's many talents for the good of world Chess.

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