One Palm Tree, One Vote: How FIFA Shows That Institutions Matter

Despite the severity of the scandal enmeshing FIFA, Sepp Blatter was nonetheless re-elected as president on May 29. He resigned a few days later, but it still shocked many that he won another term at all. Blatter’s (brief) survival owed much to the structure of FIFA, in which each of the 203 members (no matter how small or how large) gets one vote. Apparently Blatter received much support from poorer and smaller countries, many of them with little soccer tradition. Oceania had 11 votes, more than the soccer-crazed continent of South America, even though many associations represent nations or territories of 100,000 people or fewer. Blatter built a base of support among these rotten boroughs (as well as similar ones in the Caribbean) through the time-honored practice of pork barrel.

FIFA is not the only institution with severe malapportionment issues. The U.S. Senate has “equal” representation, with each state receiving two senators, regardless of population. In practice, this leads to wild inequities, with Wyoming’s 584,000 residents receiving the same representation as do 39 million Californians. This malapportionment has had real political impact, as Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer have shown. Much as the Cayman Islands or Trinidad and Tobago can reap the rewards of early representation in FIFA, senators like Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) have been able to win disproportionate shares of federal spending for their low-population states. The United Nations General Assembly also apportions representation equally, so China and India are represented as much as Nauru and Tuvalu. The Security Council has its permanent five members, each with veto power. This apportionment simply reflects which countries were the leaders of the Allied powers during World War II. This arrangement excludes important nations that were part of the Axis, such as Japan and Germany, or that weren’t independent in 1945, such as India and Indonesia.

How else could FIFA apportion its voting? By population? That would favor China, India and Indonesia, none of which are known as soccer powers. By economic importance, roughly as the IMF does? That would favor soccer-loving Germany and Japan, but also China and the USA. By soccer prowess? That would favor Europe, Brazil, and Argentina, but would annoy both the USA and much of the Third World.

The formal structure of FIFA is not to blame for all of its problems. Corruption seems to have permeated the institution, and Chuck Blazer, an American, has become one of its poster boys for graft. The United States may not enjoy an especially loud voice within the organization, but American prosecutors are bringing charges against FIFA bigwigs, and American companies predominate among FIFA sponsors. FIFA’s apportionment may be equal, but the balance of power in the broader world is not.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.