Elections 2006: Does democracy work in FIDE?

by ChessBase
5/11/2006 – A recent article published on our news page asked "Who controls FIDE?" and led to vigorous debate in chess circles all over the world. One article we received was from a 17-year veteran of FIDE elections, IM David Levy. In the next days we will bring you a number of articles and comments from all sides of the spectrum. Here for today is Levy's opinion.

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Does Democracy Work in FIDE?

By David Levy

David Levy, International Master and International Arbiter, served as the FIDE delegate for Scotland for 17 years (1976-1993), was on the Central Committee of FIDE for eight years, on the Rules Commission for eight years, and, with Kevin O’Connell, led the successful election campaign on behalf of Fridrik Olafsson in 1978 and Olafsson’s unsuccessful attempt to retain his presidency in 1982. He also took a prominent role in the unsuccessful campaign against Campomanes’ re-election in 1986.

André Schulz’ article “Who Controls FIDE?” raises some interesting fundamental issues about democracy in general and about the viability of democracy in FIDE. His statistics paint a picture which is rather convincing in one respect, and it would be easy for those who look no further than the bare figures to conclude that the one-country-one-vote system has long outlived its usefulness in FIDE. Let us examine this question a little more deeply.

Schulz’ article contains a couple of important inaccuracies, though they do not affect the gist of his argument. Firstly, he is wrong in saying that “in the past the elections were virtually uncontested”. When Euwe retired in 1978 there was a fierce three-way fight for the presidency between Rabell Mendez of Puerto Rico and two prominent grandmasters, Fridrik Olafsson of Iceland and Svetozar Gligoric of Yugoslavia. Rabell Mendez arrived for the election in Buenos Aires with caseloads of rum with which to celebrate his victory, for which some of the most prominent names in FIDE at that time were campaigning.

The fight was not entirely clean, with rumours being rife about the purchase of votes on a significant scale. I myself overheard, in the lobby area of the Buenos Aires Sheraton on the night before voting took place, one member of Rabell Mendez’ election team saying to the delegate from an impoverished country: “That’s right. I’ll pay you the three thousand dollars immediately after you sign the proxy letter.” I would not suggest, for one moment, that Rabell knew about this deal, but it actually happened. The result of the voting? On the first ballot Rabell Mendez scored 31, Olafsson 30 and Gligoric 29. On the second ballot most of Gligoric’s supporters voted for Olafsson, who therefore won comfortably.

Fast forward four years to Lucerne, in 1982. Campomanes was always going to be a formidable election opponent, being a close friend of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who had proclaimed himself “President for Life”. Campo had been well tutored by his friend in the art of rigging an election, and what happened at the FIDE election was an absolute travesty. On the night before the voting, Campomanes held a meeting of the Arab countries and promised them that, in return for their support in the election, he would allow an Arab country to host a Chess Olympiad and not to invite Israel, this in strict contravention of FIDE’s own rules. A masterstroke, this ploy netted a swing of 11 countries, i.e 22 votes. In order to ensure that people kept their promises to Campo in the “secret” ballot for the presidency and the other key positions in FIDE, he handed out lists of who “his people” should vote for. And to make absolutely certain that he was not going to be double-crossed, he stationed some of his cronies at the polling booth in order to look over the shoulders of several of those who had votes to cast.

All this was made possible as a direct result of Dr Euwe’s desire to see as many countries as possible within the fold of FIDE. As the number of member countries increased steadily, so it became easier to manipulate the vote. Who would the many small and impoverished national chess federations vote for? Someone who made it unnecessary for them to pay their federation’s membership arrears, who travelled to their country at FIDE’s expense with gifts of Chess sets paid for by FIDE, someone who would put one of their officials on a FIDE committee or arrange for one or more of their players to obtain FIDE titles due to “exceptional circumstances”? Would the small impoverished countries vote for such a person, or for his opponent? It was a “no contest”. And the more small, impoverished national Chess federations that joined FIDE, the easier it was for Campomanes to wield his stick. I recall one FIDE General Assembly meeting when Israel’s non-participation in the 1986 Olympiad was being discussed. At one point Campomanes got so annoyed with the opposition to his decision, that he put his hand in his pocket and came out with a sheaf of papers, slammed them onto the desk in front of him, and shouted: “Do you want to vote on it? Then here are my proxies.”

During Campomanes’ era FIDE grew and grew in the number of member nations, and it continues to grow. The number as we approach the vote in Turin is not 140, as Schulz suggests, but almost 160. So in order to be sure of victory Bessel Kok or Kirsan Ilyumzhinov must command more than 80 votes. At the latest count Kok is at 37 while the incumbent’s web site boasts 70. And as I write, there is less than one month to go.

Garry Kasparov discussing computers and chess with David Levy

What irks Schulz is the fact that the process is too democratic for his liking. While he would doubtless be delighted if the current figures were reversed, so that Kok had 70 supporting countries to date and Ilyumzhinov only 37, thereby making the one-country-one-vote system acceptable in his eyes, he has instead to accept the fact that democracy in this case is on the side of the incumbent. Bessel Kok’s web site, which has been operational for quite a few months now, boasts statements of support from several very prominent businessmen and world figures in other spheres. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s site is not so big in the number of prominent individuals supporting him, but he has Topalov, he has Karpov, and he has recently been able to announce that he has reunified the World Chess Championship title by signing Kramnik and Topalov to play a title match in September.

So let us consider Schulz' thesis – that democracy is bad for FIDE. He correctly points out that some other sporting federations do not operate the one-country-one-vote system. One federation that he does not mention is the World Bridge Federation, wherein the European and North American zones each send five members to the WBF executive, while the other zones, representing South America, Central America, Asia, Pacific Asia, South Pacific Asia and Africa, each send only one. Schulz’ argument applied to FIDE is simple to follow – countries are not all equal in the world of Chess; Mauritius and the Seychelles are not as important as Germany and the USA, . . . , so why should every country have one vote? This is what André Schulz wants to know, and the answer is easy. The reason is simply that that is how it is. And it will never change because the smaller countries, the “less important” ones, are never going to vote to disenfranchise themselves.

While I was a FIDE delegate the European Chess Union was born. At more than a few of its meetings in the early years the ECU discussed the idea of forming a breakaway federation, with the implicit understanding that any small “unimportant” country joining such a federation would have significantly less voting power than the “more important” ones. But it never happened, probably because it would be a brave national federation indeed that would take the first step or be one of the first to leave FIDE and suffer its wrath. That option is still on the table, but for the same reason I do not believe it will happen. Those FIDE member nations who oppose Ilyumzhinov will not be willing to take the risk of being outcasts, possibly having all of their players wiped off the rating list, and being denied their rightful places in Olympiads and other international competitions.

So where does that leave FIDE and the upcoming election? Yes, there are many who have complained about some of Ilyumzhinov’s ideas, and of the manner in which the World Championship title has been contested during much of Ilyumzhinov’s presidency. On the other hand, he has succeeded in reunifying the World Championship title where Bessel Kok failed. He has poured staggering amounts of money into world Chess. He has staged, in his own Russian enclave, an Olympiad and some other top class events, and will be hosting the forthcoming World Championship match between Topalov and Kramnik for a purse of $1 million. So although he has many detractors, particularly amongst the world’s Chess elite, he is undeniably a dynamo in world Chess. And most important of all, he has the support of the majority of FIDE member nations.

Is democracy a bad thing? Millions of people have died for the cause of democracy. In just about every civilized country in the world, democracy is the system that determines who governs and it is the system of government itself. Is it reasonable to deny the system just because it eases the path of election for someone to whom one is opposed? I think not. Surely those who oppose the incumbent should not be blaming democracy for a situation that they dislike. To me it smacks of sour grapes. Clearly Schulz would like Bessel Kok to win, but being a realist he can see the writing on the wall. He does not like the writing, so he is complaining about the construction of the wall.

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