The power of incumbency was demonstrated at the recent Fide presidential election.
LONG before the World Chess Federation’s (Fide) presidential election was held at the recently concluded Chess Olympiad in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, the writing was already on the wall that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was destined to be re-elected as Fide president.
Months before the election, both Ilyumzhinov and his rival, the former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, had been criss-crossing the globe to drum up support for their respective candidacies from among the far-flung national chess federations that make up the global chess family.
Karpov’s strategy was simple enough. Though every nation knew him as the 12th world chess champion, he still needed to visit them and convince people in those chess federations that he was a viable candidate to lead Fide for the next four years.
He campaigned on a platform to bring in reform and make chess more visible to commercial sponsors.
Ilyumzhinov, on the other hand, had little necessity to convince people at all. With the power of incumbency, he could make impromptu decisions on Fide’s behalf. Nevertheless, he took no chances and visited Fide member countries, often almost shadowing Karpov’s movements.
Ilyumzhinov also had a powerful card up his sleeve. Wherever he travelled, he extracted letters of support from member nations which he proudly proclaimed on his campaign website.
On the other hand, Karpov preferred to keep his support under wraps right until the end of the campaign, possibly to keep up an Ilyumzhinov guessing game.
Whether or not Karpov had adopted the right tactic is debatable, but everyone who followed the election intrigues on the two candidates’ campaign websites didn’t need great skill to see that the number of countries that supported Ilyumzhinov far out-numbered Karpov’s.
Nevertheless, Karpov was still hopeful for the numbers to reverse themselves in the run-up to the Fide election. A letter of support, he reasoned, may not necessarily translate into a firm commitment as long as the vote had not been cast.
Moreover, he was hoping for a miracle decision from the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, five chess federations had applied to the court to disqualify Ilyumzhinov’s team because of irregularities.
This, the court refused to rule on, preferring instead to let the status quo remain. Naturally, this was a big setback for the Karpov team because a lot of optimism had been placed on the court to agree with them.
When this didn’t materialise, it was already too close to the election date. With just a week to go, the only alternative left for Karpov was to plunge head-on into the election and face Ilyumzhinov in a do-or-die battle.
It seemed that right until the day of the election, Karpov and his team were still quietly confident of winning but Ilyumzhinov’s incumbency meant that he held the winning card.
Among them was the power to show that he was in charge when making decisions, and there were decisions made that were reportedly not at all favourable to his rival. Reports from Khanty-Mansiysk suggested that at times when the meeting turned stormy, the microphones were turned off to leave Karpov and his team without a voice.
There was also the issue of the contentious but important proxy votes from delegates who had passed their casting votes to Ilyumzhinov. In the end, with Ilyumzhinov winning 95 votes compared to Karpov’s 55 (and three absentions), it still proved impossible for a challenger to dislodge an incumbent.
So Ilyumzhinov, who had held the Fide president’s post for the past 15 years, will continue in this position for the next four years.
In the days following the election, there were attempts to close ranks with Karpov, who was offered a role as the Fide Ambassador for Life, but Karpov turned it down. The struggle against Ilyumzhinov, it seems, continues.