OPINION polls or political research surveys can be very useful. They can provide a clear idea of what voters think about political parties, election candidates and current issues.
Editor’s Memo by Dumisani Muleya
This can help competing parties or individuals develop relevant and effective election strategies.
A candidate can adjust his or her campaign strategy to highlight issues voters think in surveys are the most important by keeping track of public opinion through surveys. However, surveys can also be misleading. Opinion measurement and research are two different processes. In most cases a survey is a barometer, not a research tool. It has little or no chance of discovering anything unexpected about voters’ thought processes and interests, let alone nuances, over and above the topics it explores.
Badly worded questionnaires, poorly structured samples and misread polls, for instance, have led to countless huge surprises in elections; landslides and crushing defeats.
Bad questions, elicit bad responses and thus bad findings. “Have you stopped stealing or beating your wife?” This a classic leading question: yes or no, there’s no answer that gets you off the hook.
The issue of surveys is currently relevant because of results of the latest Mass Public Opinion Institute (Mpoi) study which left many bewildered by its incoherent or muddled findings. While Mpoi is a credible polling institute, the findings of its latest survey left a lot to be desired, raising a critical question: what’s going on here?
The late founder and director of Mpoi Masipula Sithole used to teasingly say their surveys had a “margin of terror” — not a margin of error — as is standard practice.
Like in any other survey, everybody, depending on their interest or agenda, selectively read what they wanted from the findings.
Typically, the state-controlled media chose to highlight the contradictory claim that President Robert Mugabe is the most trusted political leader in Zimbabwe even if he is the most feared, while the private media picked that he is widely dreaded.
According to Mpoi, the majority of Zimbabweans said they trusted Mugabe compared to other political leaders and would thus vote for a Zanu PF presidential candidate if an election was to be held the next day.
Yet an overwhelming majority also said they feared Mugabe. Another huge majority further said they felt the country under his rule was going in the wrong direction.
So the question is: how can a feared person viewed as in charge of a country going in the wrong direction or to the dogs, be trusted at the same time?
Naturally, men/women of power are feared; but men/women of character are trusted.
Trust and fear are mutually exclusive; linked in such a way that they are not able to apply at the same time or to congruently exist.
Where there is fear, there will be less trust. If you want to be trusted, then reducing or eliminating fear is critical. If you fear someone it’s difficult to trust them; and the opposite is equally true.
Mugabe is feared because he wields imperial power which he has recklessly abused over the years to harm citizens without reprisal. A powerful person is likely to trust a weaker one more.
However, this is not necessarily the same in reverse logic due to power imbalance or skewed power relations. Fear is a very costly. It is often used to gain temporary forced compliance, but its price is loss of trust.
Dictators these days use opinion polls to manipulate voters or prepare them for election rigging.
The case of Dr Joseph Kurebwa’s dubious election surveys — which always accurately but suspiciously predicted coming stolen Zanu PF victories — before 2008 comes to mind. Authoritarian regimes around the world hold elections, and manipulate them every step of the way. While electoral fraud and manipulation take a variety of forms, increasingly sophisticated methods are often employed before polling stations even open.
Such regimes usually get away with rigging, but exposure of blatant electoral fraud inevitably erodes their legitimacy.
So Mpoi’s findings must consequently be warily scrutinised.