Friday, July 13, 2018

2018 World Chess Federation Elections

The perfect politician?
This site mainly covers Australian elections, especially Tasmanian, but now and then I write about a curious area where two of my lives intersect, namely global chess politics. 

The world chess federation (FIDE) is gearing up for its 2018 presidential election, to be held in Batumi, Georgia (the country, not the state) in early October.  When I last picked up the story here, long-time incumbent, the somewhat eccentric Russian businessman and former Kalmykian President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was on his way to yet another landslide win in Norway in 2014.  While naive western media wrote up the contest with Garry Kasparov as likely to be a close-run thing, Ilyumzhinov won a frequently grubby contest much as expected and a little bit more, with 64% of the vote.  This more or less repeated other lopsided wins for him in 1996, 2006 and 2014.  

There were some sequels to the election, with Kasparov and Ignatius Leong being found guilty of a serious electoral breach (regarding an arrangement in which Kasparov agreed to pay Leong to deliver him votes) by the FIDE Ethics Commission and banned for two years.   However, a rival complaint against Ilyumzhinov was dismissed

Another sequel of note concerns Ilyumzhinov's promises to pay twenty million dollars into FIDE's bank account if re-elected, and establish an African chess foundation with Nigel Short at its head.  Neither of these things ever occurred.  These promises were excused by Ilyumzhinov's supporters at the time as theatrical "bullshit" in response to similar promises by Kasparov.  No evidence that Kasparov's promises were in fact "bullshit" has ever been presented, though they were certainly premised on something (him winning) that was never going to occur.

But finally after 23 years at the helm, Ilyumzhinov's reign is over, as he has not nominated for re-election.  After crushing all previous opponents, he has finally met his match in the unlikely shape of the US Department of Treasury.  In late 2015 Treasury designated him for allegedly "materially assisting and acting for or on behalf of the Government of Syria, Central Bank of Syria, Adib Mayaleh, and Batoul Rida." Ilyumzhinov tried to have the sanction overturned, including attempting to fly to the US to sort matters out (he was refused permission to board) but nothing worked.

Within weeks of being designated, Ilyumzhinov effectively stood down from the regular business of the FIDE presidency until the sanctions could be overturned (which never happened), continuing as a figurehead president but with all effective power delegated to his deputy Georgios Makropoulos.

In 2017 conflicts developed between Ilyumzhinov and his former supporters headed by Makropoulos after Ilyumzhinov made verbal statements at a meeting that were widely taken as saying he was resigning. The President was also accused of using meeting time to pursue his difficulties with Agon, the commercial rights holder for the World Championships and the culprit for some of the worst event websites in chess history.  Ilyumzhinov however denied he was resigning, and the FIDE rules stated that resignations were only binding in writing.  Therefore Ilyumzhinov remained as President technically, although the image of him on the FIDE website was eventually removed.   Moreover, the FIDE President was reported to the FIDE Ethics Commission for spreading groundless conspiracy theories about the motivations of his former supporters and now opponents on the Presidential Board.  (Update: he's been banned.)

Matters became much more serious when FIDE's bank drew a line in the sand over FIDE's retention of Ilyumzhinov as President in view of the US sanctions issue.  FIDE was eventually forced to make alternative arrangements.

Rejecting various motions calling on him to resign, Ilyumzhinov showed many signs that he might contest re-election.  This brings me to the matter of tickets.  Each FIDE Presidential candidate runs on a ticket with five other candidates for the offices of Deputy President, General Secretary, Treasurer and two Vice-Presidents.  At least one ticket member must be female. The election is winner-take-all, though further Vice-Presidents are then appointed from the floor and by the winning President.

Ilyumzhinov's announced ticket consisted largely of nobodies in the chess world and included one person who was in fact a nobody in any world.  Yes, Ilyumzhinov's announced candidate for FIDE Treasurer, "Glen Stark" (picture at top of article) proved to be a fake candidate whose photo was a stock image.  (For those with too much time on their hands I can thoroughly recommend Googling the Glen Stark story.  It's extremely weird.)

Ilyumzhinov tried running for the presidency of the Russian Chess Federation but pulled out as he did not have the numbers.  Finally the end of a long, winding and very silly road arrived when the Russian Chess Federation overwhelmingly endorsed a different FIDE Presidential candidate (see below). With that Ilyumzhinov, having given the chess world one final dose of bizarre entertainment, threw in the towel.  

The comical end of the long-serving President's reign has led to widespread support for an eight-year term limit for future Presidents, especially as the previous long-serving President, Campomanes, also had a controversial exit.  I am generally opposed to term limits in politics (I am not even sure the Presidency of the United States really needs them) and I think this call is especially missing the point.  Controversial long-serving FIDE Presidents become such because Federations vote for them.  Ilyumzhinov was always controversial.  He didn't become a problem because he had been there too long.  He became a problem because an accident that had always been waiting to happen finally did.  Take a look at almost all the arguments for why US Presidents should be term-limited, and I give you how Trump carries on after less than two years in the job.

Candidates For The Post-Kirsan Era

For the time being there is a three-way contest, and this is something FIDE hasn't seen for President under its current electoral rules, so if it stays that way it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

The current "establishment" candidate is the Deputy President, and effective acting President since Ilyumzhinov's troubles began, Georgios Makropoulos.  Makropoulos, known widely in the FIDE world as "Makro", is a Greek International Master and seven-times Greek Champion.  As is fairly common for chess officials, he is no longer active as a player in major tournaments, with his last FIDE-rated game being played in 2009.  Makropoulos is or was a newspaper journalist in Athens by profession and is currently chairman of FIDE's recently formed Commission of Chess Journalists.

As Deputy President, Makropoulos has been the chairman of the business part of many of the General Assembly meetings I have attended.  In my observation, Makropoulos is a forceful, no-nonsense chairman who has a well developed ability to read the room and determine just how much pointless grandstanding needs to be allowed before an issue can be knocked on the head.  At this point he will frequently announce a proposed resolution and say something like "This is my proposal.  Any objections?"  The result in most cases is silence.  It's actually quite interesting to observe.

The establishment forces (those core FIDE officials who supported Ilyumzhinov against his string of challengers but have now been forced to ditch him) have had some difficulties settling on a preferred Presidential candidate who was willing to run.  The popular Asian Chess Federation President, Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifah Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, was rumoured to be the likely candidate but didn't run.  Makropoulos seems to have stepped forward because nobody else satisfactory could be found and intends to serve only one four-year term if elected.

The Makropoulos ticket is called "FIDE Forward". (As with Julia Gillard's "moving forward" from the 2010 Australian election, the word "forward" also seems to imply a moving away from the past.) On the whole, FIDE Forward is running on a unitarian program of fiscal consolidation and avoidance of (further) controversy in order to restore the reputation of FIDE.  Makropolous has put forward some proposals for change including an end to proxy voting in FIDE elections (a proposal also supported by Nigel Short).     The argument for Makropoulos will be that he will be a steady hand who, with his supporters, has saved FIDE from being completely run into the ground (not only in reputation terms but also financially, with a severe squeeze a few years ago attributed to wasteful spending, that has since been resolved).  The argument against pretty much any of the senior incumbents is that had Ilyumzhinov not been propped up for so long despite being an obvious liability and reputation risk, FIDE would not have needed saving.

The "anti-establishment" challenger is Grandmaster Nigel Short.  Short is a former World Championship challenger (defeated by Garry Kasparov in 1993) and an evergreen tournament veteran who is now the oldest player in the world's top 100 by three years.  He's also seen plenty of passport stamps in his time as a travelling chess player, having visited about as many countries as the Queen.  Short is an accomplished and amusing commentator on live internet broadcasts, an often outspoken writer and not averse to a spot of light trolling now and then.  In 2015 he attracted a large social media backlash (mostly from people who didn't read the article) after wading into a heated nature-nurture debate by arguing that the massive imbalance between male and female participation rates in top-level chess resulted from differences in brain physiology.  (For anyone interested in the detail of that debate for its own sake, Australian GM David Smerdon had some good posts on all this. I'm personally somewhat on the nurture side actually, but I think we need a lot more trials of the Polgar experiment to really know.)

Short's address to federations pushes some similar ideas to, but has a more energetic feeling than, the programs argued for by previous challengers Karpov and Kasparov.  In particular, Short wants FIDE to turn its financial model inside out, start attracting better sponsors and to stop raising so much revenue from "taxing" players, arbiters, trainers, organisers and federations.  As one of the officials who handles a lot of Australia's transactions at FIDE level I can vouch for some of the issues that the profusion of FIDE fees can cause.  I quite often email chess players to tell them that if they want to change their FIDE federation listing that will be 250 Euro (if they're lucky) - explained by one senior official as a price signal to discourage players from creating work for FIDE by having their federation listed accurately.  Most put up grumpily with being listed under the "wrong" federation rather than pay.

The third and somewhat mysterious candidate is Arkady Vladimirovich Dvorkovich. Dvorkovich is a very experienced Russian politician, Deputy Prime Minister under Medvedev from 2012-2018, and also recently chairman of the soccer World Cup organising committee.  He is also an economist and billionaire.  The candidate's father was a dedicated arbiter, and Dvorkovich is a former Russian Chess Federation President (2010-2014).  Dvorkovich is widely viewed as the "Kremlin candidate" and his endorsement by the Russian chess federation was widely seen as intended to force Ilyumzhinov out of the race, but it is unclear what more is intended beyond that.  Information in English on Dvorkovich's intentions is, at this stage, somewhat elusive, but here's one translation of his comments at a press conference. If he's not all that serious about winning and just wants to use his bid to develop chess, is this a foot in the door for an expected vacancy in 2022?  As yet we don't know.

No particular controversies are known to be attached to Dvorkovich.  However, in January 2018 the US released a list of potential sanctions targets (basically, people who are Russian politicians or are very rich Russians, of which Dvorkovich is obviously both.)  That seemed to be a shot across the bows though, so I don't know if there's a risk of a repeat of the Makropoulos situation.

OMG Actual Electoral Ethics!

As I finally get this article nearly finished comes a remarkable development with FIDE issuing a decree against the kind of behaviour that has been par, bogey and double bogey for the course by all sides in recent previous elections.  A remarkably strict declaration on "anti-corruption" measures targets the sort of stuff I mentioned in my previous article: the flying of delegates here and there for meetings, the strange letters from embassies to chess federations (sometimes bearing offers of lunch), hopefully even the giveaway pens inscribed with the names of candidates for office and so on.  It's a relief to look forward to all the free space in my rubbish bin at the end of the Congress, but I'm not sure this overdue culture change has been entirely thought out:

No Federation Presidents, delegates or officials in FIDE of any national chess federation should accept any gifts, subsidy, inducements, financial or otherwise, or accept any hospitality from a Presidential or Continental electoral candidate, member, adviser or supporter of a Presidential ticket or electoral candidate. All Presidents, officials, delegates or candidates should immediately report any such offer to the Electoral Integrity Committee. 

Officials include but are not limited to: 

• Officers or any person with influence over the decision or voting processes of FIDE or any national chess federation/s including but not limited to Presidents or Delegates of such federations. 
• Candidates for election to any FIDE or Continental positions 
• Employees, administrators, managers, employed by FIDE or national chess federations 

So I guess that means the tickets won't be throwing any parties for their supporters in Batumi, because that's "hospitality", and as it's written even buying a coffee for a delegate could be a prohibited gift.  (Electoral jurisdictions that have policed this stuff for more than five minutes tend to have a codified value floor, about the cost of a coffee or beer, below which a gift cannot be considered as a bribe.) There's also the question of what constitutes an "adviser or supporter" - does a delegate whose federation has publicly declared support become a "supporter" for the purposes of this rule?  If I chat with Nigel Short about the above restriction on Twitter, does that make me an "adviser"?

Another sign of a sea change was the rapid dumping by the FIDE Forward ticket of Aguinaldo Jaime, one of Ilyumzhinov's 2014 Vice-Presidential candidates. Jaime was on the Makropoulos ticket until Short raised corruption allegations from a US Senate report (old stuff that has been online since at least 2010!).  Almost immediately Jaime had to withdraw for personal reasons.


The first available (though not necessarily reliable) data on support from particular candidates came from the release of the list of countries nominating each ticket.  A ticket requires a minimum of five nominators but tickets are often keen to show off their strength by being supported by more.  The process of declaring support in this way is public, and countries can also publicly declare their support in other ways, but the actual voting is done by delegates in a secret ballot.  So there is no guarantee a country will vote the way it says it will.  Nonetheless, lopsided nomination tallies have tended in the past to lead to lopsided elections.

The Makropoulos ticket was submitted with a massive 64 nominations (they say they had a few more, but ran out of room to list them) to 13 (notably including France) for Dvorkovich and six for Short.  This is an even more lopsided balance than the 52-20 rollcall in 2014.  With many federations yet to show their hands there's still a long way to go but if this really stays a three-way contest and if all these federations do vote for Makropoulos then he only needs a handful more to fall his way to win in the first round, which he has been openly predicting will happen.  Some churn between nominations is also of interest - while most of the federations nominating Short didn't nominate anyone in the opening announcement last time, three of those that nominated Kasparov have declared for other tickets.

There are two lines of "it's not that simple" theory that I have seen around the traps.  The first, and I am unsure if its factual premise is even correct, is that the nominations might have been mostly collected prior to Ilyumzhinov's withdrawal and Dvorkovich's entry, and that while none of the federations nominating Makropoulos are remotely likely to vote for Short, they might yet be open to voting for Dvorkovich, especially if his bid is well-resourced.

The other is that there is some sort of plan for the two non-Short tickets to merge with Dvorkovich becoming some kind of shiny new Ilyumzhinov.  The problem with this theory so far is that it is not clear why this would not have been organised in advance if it was ever going to happen at all. 

For all the talk of last-minute dramas and deals, exotic ticket splicing, balances of power and other such scenarios my early suspicion is that the election itself is shaping up to be another fizzer, which is why I'm writing now while it's still interesting!  If it does go to a three-way contest, then the FIDE Electoral Regulations come into play:

3.7 For all elections a majority of the votes cast, not counting abstentions, shall be required. If there is a tie, the voting is repeated until the tie is broken. 
If three or more persons are nominated for the same offices or office, the candidates that receive 50% plus one of the votes cast, are elected on the first ballot. Thereafter, the candidates receiving most votes on the second ballot are elected to the vacant number of offices. If there is a tie, the voting is repeated until the tie is broken. 

One would think that the candidate in third place drops out after the first round (if there is no outright majority) but the regulations don't explicitly require them to.  Oh for those still pushing ticket-merge theories, here's the regulation on that sort of thing:

1.7 In case one member of a Presidential ticket becomes incapable to run for the election (death, illness or similar serious reasons), he/she can be replaced on the Presidential ticket within 20 days after the unexpected event, but at the latest until the day before the election. All other conditions concerning the nominations are applicable. In case of doubt, the ELE shall make a decision.

The ELE is the Electoral Commission (itself a fairly recent development) and consists of a chair (of the Constitutional Commission) elected by the General Assembly of federations and one member elected by each of the four Continents.  The "scrutineers" (effectively the election vote-counters; what this site knows as "scrutineers" are in FIDE parlance called "observers") are also elected by the General Assembly. And here is an aspect of Short's platform that I personally support: FIDE should ideally find some way for all of its electoral organs to be independent. It is the only way, especially when so many FIDE regulations are so imprecisely written.


Disclaimer: This article represents my own views only and not those of the Australian Chess Federation, any other chess organisation or any candidate or election ticket. The ACF has not as yet made any decision regarding who (if anyone) to support, and nor have I. 

Warning: All feedback arising from this article will be taken to be on the public record, especially if stated otherwise.


  1. I like Malcolm Pein's editorial on his engagement in the electoral process by standing on Makropoulos' ticket because it contains arguments (exceeding in lenghth Twitter posts) for particular programs he would like to put in place.

    By the way, he also states that Makropoulos, if successful, will stand down after his term expires in 2022. Where are some of the sources for this claim (am not asking for the enforeability of such claims)?

    1. One is here: Of course there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then.