Monday, August 11, 2014

World Chess Federation Election

A Kasparov election poster in Tromso. Just a little one ...
Greetings from Tromsø, Norway (69.40.58 N, 18.56.34 E), a very pleasant if pricey city of about 72,000 people (plus lots of students and seasonal visitors) up above the Arctic Circle.  I'm currently staying here for the world chess federation (FIDE) Congress and four-yearly elections. As I so often write about elections on this site, I thought it was well worth covering this one, eccentric as it is by the standards of those I usually cover.

FIDE (stands for Fédération internationale des échecs) was founded ninety years ago and initially acted as a kind of players' union with its main areas of interest being Olympiads (international team tournaments like the one also being staged here) and World Championships.  In nearly a century the body's scope has expanded greatly to cover almost all aspects of international chess and a world rating system that is widely used to rate events at national and lower levels.  In this time FIDE has had just six Presidents.

The incumbent President is Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov.  Ilyumzhinov (frequently known in the chess community by his first name) was elected in 1995 after his predecessor, Florencio Campomanes, resigned following a widely disputed election the previous year. Ilyumzhinov was re-elected at a special vote in 1996, defeating Brazilian grandmaster Jaime Sunye Neto 87-46, then re-elected unopposed in 1998, and also in 2002 after intending opponent Ignatius Leong withdrew and became General Secretary.

Ilyumzhinov faced his first contested vote in ten years in 2006, defeating challenger Bessel Kok 96-54 (64% 2PP).  In 2010, former world champion Anatoly Karpov was the opponent, and the vote was little different, 95-55.  Now in Tromsø, it is another former world champion, Garry Kimovich Kasparov (who strongly backed the Karpov ticket in 2010 - the two have since fallen out) who is running against the 19-year incumbent.

The profile of the two men in the West generally is inversely proportional to their own success in non-chess politics. Ilyumzhinov is not well known in the West but is a former (and formidable) politician in his own right, the President of the Russian republic of Kalmykia from 1995-2010.  Western chess audiences often oppose him for three essentially non-chess reasons:

* his claims to have interacted with aliens
* his willingness to associate with dictators reviled in the west (for instance Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi) in attempting to promote chess to the whole world.
* the murder, in 1998, of Kalmyk opposition journalist Larissa Yudina.  Two men with government connections were convicted of the allegedly contracted hit, which opponents of Ilyumzhinov frequently blame on the man himself, though no evidence of his involvement has ever been found.

Kasparov is higher-profile in the west, not just for chess, but his own ventures into non-chess politics have been a little less successful.  He is a long-time opponent of Vladimir Putin, but his attempts to campaign against the Russian leader have amounted to little more than a string of arrests (and in one case a beating with a chessboard).  An attempt to contest the Russian presidency in 2007 came to nothing when he was unable to rent a hall large enough to meet a very dubious rule requiring candidates to assemble enough supporters in one place to nominate, a situation he blamed on the nobbling of potential hall owners.  He eventually fled Russia and is now a citizen of Croatia, and a high-profile expatriate critic of Putin.  Within the west, he is often viewed favourably, but there is a view that sometimes he will blame Putin for everything, whether it is actually reasonable to do so or not.  One can hardly say he hasn't been provoked.

So far as the FIDE election campaign goes, policy is the least interesting aspect.  The Kirsan ticket "FIDE First" (the name attacks Kasparov's willingness to use chess politics as a stage to highlight broader political concerns) promises more of the same only better, and is mostly uncontentious from a policy perspective.  The Kasparov "FIDE Rising" ticket's "Six Winning Moves" policies offer shakeups in fees, transparency and sponsorship, but are not wildly radical either.  That is not to underestimate the turmoil within FIDE if the challenger should win.  The well-resourced governing body has built up a large structure of commissions, staffing and online resources and if Kasparov wins a lot of commission heads will suddenly have a lot more free time than they used to. The internal restructuring would be massive.

The vote is along UN style one-federation one-vote lines, though a federation is often a country rather than a nation, hence England, Scotland, Wales and Jersey each have a vote.  As with bodies like the International Whaling Commission, this system attracts criticism because it increases the power of very small countries that are often seen as easily bought off.  But those westerners who think that a shift to a system based on the number of chessplayers in a given nation would make any difference are often mistaken; if anything it would strengthen the grip of the incumbent.

The recognition of which is the actual federation of a country is often controversial.  Some countries have multiple chess organisations with no one clearly dominant.  Such issues are determined by the FIDE Electoral Commission (ELE), which contains representatives from each continent, the members being not necessarily independent or neutral.   The ELE also determines issues involving the appointment of delegates by each member federation, which can be contentious because delegates might be dismissed and replaced if they show signs of supporting the wrong person.  The Kasparov camp's complaints about some of these rulings are reported at (and doubtless many other places.) In return, the incumbent's camp have repeatedly played up corruption allegations against the person who the Kasparov camp says should be the Afghanistan delegate.

Much of the campaign against the Kasparov camp has focused on an agreement between Kasparov and Ignatius Leong in which Kasparov is paying Leong money - and lots of it - to secure votes from the Asia region on his behalf.  How these are to be secured is not specifically stated, but the agreement has been widely attacked as vote-buying.  The incumbent is also under fire for an agreement of his own, the so-called AGON Agreement . The two agreements are the subject of duelling complaints to FIDE's Ethics Commission, and both of the tickets spend much of their time calling the other side corrupt. While this has resulted in claims that this is the dirtiest FIDE election for some time, claims that it's the nastiest do not appear true.  Violence threats and other forms of intimidation - a common feature of past campaigns - have been either rare or absent.

This has also been the richest FIDE election ever, with both campaigns having spent millions of dollars, and money thrown every which way in search of votes with no restraint whatsoever.  If I listed all the goodies or invites I've received from one side or the other as Australian delegate (usually useless or of little value and some even unidentifable) the list would scroll off the screen, yet none of these have any influence on my vote since the Australian vote is decided by the Australian Chess Federation Council, and while I am on said Council, I abstained from voting precisely so that my collection of treats wouldn't influence our decision.  Some of the money-throwing isn't even well organised: one of the tickets spent thousands of dollars flying me to a meeting to lobby me only to fail to tell me until just before it started that the meeting had moved several kilometres away, resulting in me missing close to half of it. I add that at no stage have I or the ACF been offered money, and nor have any of the gifts provided been given on any stated understanding that I would consider voting a particular way.

The Olympiad itself has also provided a flashpoint with the organisers initially throwing out several teams, including the defending women's champions, Russia, for failure to register in time.  Russia did have an extenuating circumstance, as they were awaiting the clearance of one of the top female players, Kateryna Lagno, on a transfer from the Ukrainian federation to theirs.  However it appears they didn't even bother to ask for an extension before the deadline.  The expulsions were overruled by the FIDE president, resulting in some back-and-forth legal posturing (some of it still ongoing) and the organisers backed down (while blaming a FIDE official for advising them that the teams should be excluded.)  The incident provided a great opportunity for Kirsan to ride to the rescue, being photographed wearing a t-shirt with names of the teams he was fighting to save:

Great PR for the President, but the reality is that Gabon and the Afghanistan women's team never made it; I've heard that the newly declared federation for Gabon selected different players who then couldn't get visas in time.Visas were another political issue in the leadup to the election, with many nations lacking automatic visa arrangements with Norway struggling to complete the complex procedure in time.  The Kirsan camp alleges its own supporters were especially targeted.

Around the Olympiad hotels and venue, Kasparov posters are plentiful, and supporters of each side wear their team's t-shirts.  I haven't seen posters for the incumbent, but delegates going to meetings are handed issues of his double-sided A3 glossy daily campaign sheet, "FIDE First".  This publication consists almost exclusively of attacks on Kasparov, his camp and supporters, some of them supported with "smoking gun" emails.  It's all quite stylishly presented, including an image of Kasparov speaking where someone's had fun photoshopping "The Future Of Chess" in the background to change it to "The Funeral Of Chess".

Western media have generally written the election up as a close contest.  Yet the Kirsan camp are not managing expectations at all, stating in their newsletter that the Kasparov/Leong ticket "are heading for a massive electoral defeat".  As a delegate, I am not finding any signs of a very close contest. The general view is that the incumbent has massive support from South American and Caribbean federations with the rest of the world fairly even. Some still hope Kasparov might get close enough to challenge the result successfully in court (the "margin of litigation" in these things being something like 10%!) but the debatably objective signs all along (number of nominators, number of proxies, statements of support) have been that the incumbent is cruising and will win again with not  that much if any swing against him when the election is run and won sometime on Monday night Australian time.  I will add a PS with the result when it's all over.  Oh, and for those wondering, Australia is voting for the challenger.


Updates from the Congress: I just ran for the scrutineering committee (= returning officers) for the election with support from the Kasparov ticket. Five candidates, each gets an individual show of hands for yes votes, can vote yes for multiple candidates. Carol Jarecki was elected first with support from both tickets and nearly universal support, so is chair. Kirsan ticket nominees got 111 and 104 votes hence were elected, and Kasparov ticket nominees got 73 (me) and 63, hence weren't.

Consistent with my view that Kirsan will win, looks like a small swing against him.  On the basis of this vote it might be around 60% 2PP.

Prior to this there was over an hour of grandstanding about the Electoral Commission's decisions, especially concerning Gabon, with very little actual information revealed.  FIDE very badly needs a neutral Electoral Commission that will make decisions above suspicion of partisan bias.

3 pm Tromso (11pm eastern Aust): Voting is underway following speeches by the candidates in which Kasparov spoke first following a random draw and most of his offers were trumped by Ilyumzhinov promising higher amounts, and also promising positions and donations to his opponents.  It was clearly an advantage to the incumbent to speak second and he received much louder and more prolonged applause, all as a pointer to a result there seems little doubt about, the secret ballot notwithstanding.

4:30 pm: Vote-counting now underway.  Result soon.

5 pm: It's in and Kirsan wins a massive victory, 110-61 with 4 informal. 64% 2PP and a 1% swing to him.

1 pm Wednesday:  Dreadfully slow voting process here for the five elected FIDE VPs. First ballot was 12 candidates, can vote for up to 5, and a candidate needs to exceed 50% to win. Four did so now there is a second first-past-the-post vote for the remaining position. This is all taking hours and during this time the rules have been mis-announced three times, fortunately without impact.

Elected on the first ballot were Sundar 103 votes, Filitov 98, Khambuzia 93, Marinello 83. The rest (75 required) were Khordarkovsky 64, Bastian 63, Jansen 44, Wilkinson* 38, Ochoa (sp?) 33, Msimang* 24, Boytsun 17, Wijesurija* 9. Those marked * have withdrawn from the second ballot. The whole thing is taking hours and there is still another, multi-position, election to go. The four elected on the first ballot, together with Bastian, were all on  how-to-vote card issued by FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos, though Marinello at least also had supporters outside it. The pro-Kasparov how-to-vote isn't doing so well but all its candidates bar one (Khordarkovsky) have now withdrawn for maximum chance of winning.  (Update: Bastian won the second ballot.)


  1. Excellent summary and a good explanation of the monolithic beast which FIDE has transformed itself into over the decades since its founding. I'm sure most people, even those involved in chess, would be unwilling to wade through what must by now be a massive pile of documents and ordnances describing all it's parts, their powers and their domains. To anyone watching from the outside, much of it must seem incomprehensible.

  2. Agreed it is an excellent synopsis of the disease that is FIDE, particularly the elections. The main reason some people thought it might be close, is that Kirsan was taking such "extreme" actions against Kaspy supporters (changing recognition of official federations and delegates, etc). It remains to be seen what CAS will say, probably again that FIDE needs to make its rules more transparent (which was the main reason why FIDE got docked with so much of the costs in the 2010 litigation).

    You might point out, the way that FIDE gets money is by selling off organising rights, and these tend to go to countries that support Kirsan, specifically things like World U-18 Champs that local governments are more likely to pay to host.