Sunday August 16 2015

Find new approach to Ugandan opinion polls

By Timothy Kalyegira

We are at it yet again, a people who just never seem to learn.
A recent round of opinion polls ahead of a general election has stirred up controversy. Those whose candidate is put in the lead jubilate while those not in the lead dismiss the polls, and we end up back to the start.
It is about time that the Ugandan political class, media and research firms sat down and once and for all found a remedy to this problem of opinion polls. We need opinion polls and market research, but these have to be credible enough not to allow the controversy to drown out the message.
A new approach has to be found to the conduct of polls.
In Western and other democracies, political opinion polls are a prelude to the general election itself. They are part and parcel of the electoral process.
Being who we are, we simply copied opinion polls from the West and started to try them out in our country with a very different set of circumstances, leading to the bitter argument that always follows the publication of our opinion polls.
In order to gauge the efficacy of opinion polls in Uganda, we must examine the entire political process leading up to the general election.
We must understand the objective of opinion polls. What is their purpose? Is it to measure public opinion or to shape it?
Is the national Electoral Commission truly independent? Do at least half the participating political parties recognise it as independent?
Do the senior officials of the Electoral Commission feel free to conduct their preparations without interference or pressure from the government?
Are presidential and parliamentary candidates free to travel to any part of the country unhindered and appear on any radio or television station of their choice, in any town, without being barred?
Are the citizens of the country in general free to express their personal views on public and political matters without fear or consequence?
Are the opinion tracking and polling firms themselves free to conduct their polls, without fear of intimidation by government authorities?
If an opinion poll by a research company were to consistently show the sitting head of state or ruling party trailing the Opposition, would the research company continue to enjoy the full benefits of operating without obstacle?
Is the media free to publish or broadcast news and analysis without pressure, direct or subtle, from the government?
Is the business community free to advertise on any radio or television station or in any newspaper or on any website of their choosing without fear of being branded “anti-government”?
These are the sorts of questions that must first be asked before we can decide whether it is worth the bother with opinion polls.
Some commentators have argued that Ugandans have a problem with accepting facts and dealing with uncomfortable truth, which is why the results of opinion polls are always heavily criticised.
That might be true, but as I told Mr Patrick Wakida, a pollster who was hosted on KFM two weeks ago, some researchers’ approach to the conduct of opinion polls is something I find amateurish.
I also find amateurish the media companies, obviously imagining themselves “sophisticated”, that commission these amateurish opinion polls.
The question of opinion polls is similar to that regarding the law. Repressive regimes usually have unfair or repressive laws on their statutory books. Criticism of the president is a crime, opposition political parties are banned. These are all laws, but the question is: are they just laws?
Similarly, the citizens that opinion pollsters encounter as they conduct their polls on the face of it give their opinion in response to the questions put to them. But given the general political and social environment, are these opinions really a true reflection of the free thoughts of the citizenry in general?
It is not enough to say according to Mr Wakida’s polls, 71 or 65 per cent of the people interviewed said they would vote President Museveni if the election were held today or next week.
The more important question is did these potential voters get to listen to the challengers to the President and have a basis on which to make up their minds?
When Opposition leaders like Norbert Mao, Kizza Besigye, Mugisha Muntu ahead of the 2011 general election are barred from appearing on radio stations in Kasese or even prevented from entering Kasese Town itself (in the case of the former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, prevented from travelling to Mbale), how then do we say an opinion poll is in anyway accurate or real?
Although these days he is doing everything to justify the NRM government, the journalist Andrew Mwenda was at least objective enough during the July 31 KFM evening talk show to caution against the unquestioning belief in opinion polls.
Mwenda pointed out to listeners that nearly all the opinion polls ahead of the 2015 British general election pointed to victory for the Labour party, only for the Conservatives to win by an even greater margin than the last election.
So, as one steeped in research and the gathering of data I certainly wish Ugandans and other Africans learnt to embrace facts, data and the scientific method.
Having said that though, I do not necessarily think that people like Wakida are competent enough or have enough grasp of the wider issues around the spirit of opinion polls, to be commissioned to conduct national polls.
And my criticism of Wakida and the other polling firms before him, such as those by Wilsken and Afrobarometer in 2006, is not that I refuse to face facts that go against my political preference.
My criticism is over their basic incompetence and amateurishness, as well as the lack of imagination by those media companies that insist on commissioning these so-called polls without learning from the futility of it all.

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