Beware of Election Polls

In a country where propaganda is very effective and rumours spread like wild fire, a large segment of the electorate was brought to vote against independence – By Sada Reddi

As we come closer to polling day for the by-election of Belle Rose-Quatre Bornes, one can expect a few surveys — commissioned by political parties, candidates, and independent organisations which are not necessarily independent – indicating or speculating on voters intentions. These are legitimate strategies adopted by candidates and parties to collect information with a view to refining their election strategies.

However, such opinion polls, when they are publicized either in newspapers or on the social media, may have devastating consequences on the outcome of an election. Party strategists are already aware of the nefarious influences of such opinion surveys and tackle them in their own ways. On the other hand, voters may not necessarily be aware of the propaganda embedded in opinion polls, and it is the responsibility of parties to sensitize the electorate and public generally about these risks so that election results do not get distorted.

There is rarely an opinion poll that publishes its results for the general public during an electoral campaign and which does not have a political agenda. Obviously polling agencies will defend their surveys as being scientific, that their small sample size is demographically and sociologically sound, have been properly and ethically constructed, and that their findings reflect the opinion of large numbers of people. While any opinion survey can only be a snapshot at a particular point in time, there is a lot of information that can be gleaned from it and be valuable for both electors and political parties if it is properly analyzed. As for online polls, they are utterly useless and are more amateurish, just-for-fun stuff than anything else.

powerful weapons of propaganda

Nevertheless, opinion polls published in the run-up of an election can greatly sway public opinion since their findings may influence voters one way or the other. They are powerful weapons of political propaganda and have been used in many countries to help candidates win or lose elections. Even when they appear consistently positive for particular candidates at different stages, they may in fact aim at lulling party strategists and activists of such candidates into complacency and provide stimulus to other candidates who are lagging behind to put in more efforts so as to close ranks with candidates that appear to be winning the election.

Such polls may otherwise encourage abstention on the part of party loyalists who would contend that their votes do not matter since their candidate is sure to win anyway. They may also highlight and indeed emphasize the many obstacles on the way of other candidates with a view to make them give up. In view of the baneful effects of opinion polls, several countries have banned the holding of such surveys and/or exit polls during a defined period prior to the elections. The absence of any polling exercise during that period – in other words a form of pre-election silence which bans political campaigning prior to a presidential or general election — makes for conditions favourable for electors to reflect on their choice before casting their vote.

In recent years, opinion polls have fallen into disrepute in many countries including our own, for failing to grasp the changing nature and mood of the electorate. In Mauritius, we know very little about how and why the electorate’s mood can and does change at different times, what causes party disaffiliation or party disaffection over the years and whether this is durable or not. While we are aware that there has been increasing volatility in electoral behavior, our conclusions are impressionistic and are not based on rigorous studies.

We still do not know how different perceptions of future electoral alliances can impact electoral behavior in the forthcoming by-election in Constituency No. 18. In 2014 we witnessed the stunning victory of the Alliance Lepep, which most political observers could not predict except the few who had their ears close to the ground. Similarly in the UK which saw the election of David Cameron as Prime Minister, out of the 96 or more election polls, very few had predicted the victory of the Conservative Party. Most of the polls predicted a hung parliament, with no party in a position to secure a majority to govern. Similarly few could have predicted the relative victory of the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in the last elections.

Even if many countries have put in place systems to better control election polls and a few have even banned such polls altogether, in the New Digital Age this is neither possible nor advisable in a democratic society. One can still conduct an opinion poll in a country even where it is banned or controlled and have the poll’s findings published and made accessible to a global audience online or via a foreign radio/television channel. Though one may even insist that an opinion poll be published in full with all the details relating to the sample, the questions asked or even the sequencing of the questions or the way they have been phrased, still one cannot vouch for the ethical conduct of a survey for, in spite of a proper methodology, the figures can easily be docked.

Pitfalls of opinion polls

Given the reservations that political parties and electors should have when analyzing the findings of polls, it is up to the parties and candidates to take pre-emptive measures to educate the electorate about the pitfalls of opinion polls and provide them with some guidelines as to what to read in these polls. Some detailed explanations are necessary to explain to electors the danger of putting one’s faith in such polls.

In every election, electors are warned to disregard rumours, fake stories, half-truths and spin penned by unsigned columnists and published in the media or spread by party activists. Similarly, electors must be armed to deconstruct political propaganda spread through opinion surveys. This is a challenging task for any candidate or any party. It is not easy within weeks of an election to educate public opinion about election polls. This should have been an ongoing exercise by political parties in the political education of the masses especially in a small country like Mauritius where propaganda is very effective and rumours spread like wild fire.

Remember how within less than a decade we were able to reduce our population or how a large segment of the electorate was brought to vote against independence. Those participating actively in the by-election have to step up their efforts to draw the attention of electors about the inherent dangers of elections polls during their door-to-door interactions or in their meetings while emphasizing their political action for the present and the future.

Parties and electors should perhaps approach the polls just like many approach the horoscopes of the day. When the predictions are favourable, they capitalize on their psychological effects, if any, and make the most of it. When the stars seem unfavourable, they either ignore such predictions or take it up as a challenge to prove the stars wrong. In any case, there is no substitute for hard work and extra efforts to win an election which will surely prove decisive for the next general elections.

 

 

*  Published in print edition on 24 November 2017

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