Secret Ballot Voting at Root of FIFA's Accountability Problem

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Secret Ballot Voting at Root of FIFA's Accountability Problem
AP

FIFA has an accountability problem.

Given the recent revelations in The Sunday Times—summarized nicely by the Associated Press—this will come as news to no one.

That further allegations of corruption at world football’s governing body, including a treasure trove of emails and bank transfers linking ousted executive Mohamed bin Hamman to £3 million in payments meant to secure support for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, have been received so eagerly by the international press only speaks to the near-universal distrust with which FIFA is now viewed.

It has only itself to blame.

That said, both the culture of suspicion that now envelops the organisation and the overwhelming rejection of the Qatar event were rather predictable, at least in hindsight, and rectifying both situations will require no shortage of internal self-examination and outside investigation, such as was provided over the weekend.

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Mohamed Bin Hamman, right, is alleged to have bribed FIFA Executive Committee members.

But The Sunday Times has yet to reveal the full extent of its information, the majority of which was passed on by what it calls a “senior FIFA insider.” And until it does, and until independent ethics prosecutor Michael Garcia—a New York lawyer—reports his findings to FIFA, any allegations will remain just that—stories, however credible, lacking substantive proof.

What we do know, however, and what we need no help in knowing, is that FIFA’s voting procedure invites suspicion and that the size and scale of its World Cup is less and less accommodating to transparency as it continues to grow.

This is why, after previous revelations of human rights abuses and scheduling changes, it’s only now that the 2022 World Cup has been placed in any real danger of being put to a rerun.

It’s only the process that can conceivably and logically force the do-over so fervently sought by England, Australia and the United States. Because while Qatar’s migrant workers’ program is certainly reprehensible, the slippery slope of international ethics is one that would leave any potential bidder buried in mud.

The winter schedule, meanwhile, has never been a factor to seriously threaten the competition.

If the vote is to be recast—and there’s a very real possibility that it could—it will be because of accountability, because the alleged bribes of bin Hamman and others almost certainly affected the original outcome.

A Guardian investigation into workers' conditions in Qatar.

Of course, FIFA will be running the risk of repeating past mistakes unless it makes a meaningful adjustment to its procedure. It is nonsensical that voters entrusted with awarding World Cups do so by secret ballot, and until the element of anonymity is eradicated it will be far too easy to link the unaccountable Executive Committee (the body that does the voting) to rumours in the shadows.

Legislators in modern democracies, for example, are required to vote on the record and for posterity, and they do so because they are accountable to the electorate that put them there. FIFA, by retaining a secret ballot, essentially claims that it doesn’t have to answer to anyone, and it’s in such a mindset that its credibility deficiency originates.

Stanley Chou/Getty Images
The FIFA membership votes secretly and is accountable to no one.

The fact is that FIFA is accountable. Or, at least, it should be. It exists because football is universally popular and requires central oversight, and most of its members represent countries whose own football associations are supported by both government grants and grassroots fees.

Even its World Cups, into which it invests nothing but reaps considerable reward, attract sponsors that are based entirely on consumerism—on the consumption of regular people in regular places who bristle when the sport they prop up can somehow sustain bribery packages in the millions of pounds.

The $1.4 billion that FIFA—a registered non-profit organisation—holds as cash reserve (as per Reuters) is not its money, but rather the people’s money. And it should be answerable for how that money is spent. And for where its World Cup is placed. And for who becomes its president.

Pascal Muller/Getty Images
Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter are rivals in the upcoming FIFA presidential election.

It would also be useful if the presidency was a considerably less lucrative post—if checks and balances were introduced between the position, the Executive Committee and the FIFA membership more broadly. So much of the alleged malpractice has had a presidential subtext, from current boss Sepp Blatter’s previous rivalry with bin Hamman to the current one with UEFA supremo Michel Platini.

A transparent voting process would do away with much of that, as potential discrepancies would immediately become far more traceable. It would also go some distance in placating a suspicious press corps while serving notice that recent overtures about ethical procedure, of which Garcia’s investigation was the primary result, were more than hot air.

Bust most of all it would finally link, through accountability, the governing body and a public it has heretofore viewed as a customer, but which is actually its constituency and raison d’etre.

FIFA has an accountability problem—one it won’t be able to fix until it stops hiding behind its secret ballot.

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