Making sense of the polls

Posted in politics by jrahman on January 13, 2010

I’ve found it odd that it has taken such a long time for opinion polls to become common in a politics-crazy country like Bangladesh.  We frequently here pundits of all types bloviate about ‘people believe XYZ’.  But without reliable opinion polls, how do we know what the people really think? 

Now we have the country’s two major nespapers publish two opinion polls to mark the third Awami League government’s first year in office.  Prothom Alo’s poll was done by ORG-Quest Research — a Bangladeshi firm, Daily Star’s was done by the multinational Nielsen.  

As far as I can tell, the polls are done in a manner consistent with international survey practices and statistical techniques.  Nielsen’s sample of 3050 is twice as large as a typical US Gallup poll (keeping in mind that US population is double that of Bangladesh’s, and is a lot more diverse culturally/ethnically/geographically).  ORG-Quest’s sample of 1,500 is internationally comparable.  People can debate Prothom Alo / Daily Star’s editorial stance, or question the truthfulness of their reports, but these polls seem to be genuine.

Both polls find that the government has maintained landslide-proportioned popularity.  Over three-fifths (since these polls have margins of error, I think it is better to quote these numbers in fraction than decimal) of the people believe the country is heading in the right direction.  Since the Grand Alliance’s vote share was less than three-fifths in the Dec 2008 election, it must mean that even some people who didn’t vote for the government think it’s doing a reasonable job. 

The ORG-Quest poll specifically asks people to show their voting intention if an election is held today.  Nearly three-fifths support the Grand Alliance, while the opposition Four Party Alliance has support of less than a third.  Even if the tenth ‘undecideds’ break for the opposition, an election in late December would have seen the government re-elected with perhaps a bigger margin than what it already has! 

If the enormity of the implication is not clear, pause here for a while to let it sink in.

The detailed results and charts are available through the links above.   Over the fold, I provide some observations/ramblings on the results.

1. Well over two-thirds approve the Prime Minister in the Nielsen poll — a remarkable seal of approval that any democratic leader anywhere would hanker for.  In contrast, the Leader of the Opposition has the approval of less than two-fifths in the Nielsen poll.   It used to be a conventional wisdom that the BNP chief has stronger personal appeal than her rival.  The time may be approaching to junk that conventional wisdom.

The ORG-Quest poll suggest nearly three-fifths would support Sajeeb Wajed Joy’s entry into politics.  In contrast, Tarique Rahman’s elevation in BNP leadership is supported by only half. 

2. Another conventional wisdom has been that since AL has come to power, law and order has taken a drastic turn for the worse.  In fact, sometimes the government itself has claimed that drastic measures such as ‘cross-fire’ are needed to stem the slide in law and order.  Turns out that about half the people actually believe law and order has improved under this government.  While this may surprise many, this is actually consistent with data on crime.

Perhaps the chattering classes should turn their focus on holding government to account on its promise to stop extrajudicial killing instead of braying about the law and order ‘nightmare’?

3. The government received a poor grade on price stability, with half expressing dissatisfaction (Nielsen) or failing to express satisfaction (ORG-Quest).  This isn’t surprising given the recent uptick in inflation.  According to the Nielsen poll, over two-fifths believe that prices/agriculture/food security should be the single most important focus for the government.

The good news for the government is that two-thirds (ORG-Quest) approve of the way the government has handled the agriculture sector.  The bad news is that it’s not clear that the discourse on this issue has gone beyond what I noted nearly a year ago:

Food security is a complex, multifaceted issue. “It is all due to syndicates (or foreigners, or some other villain)” may be politically popular rhetoric. But with the election behind us, it is time to deliver, and one hopes that the government will take “multi-pronged” actions to honour its promise.

4. The polls also provide some clues about how specific policy initiatives or events have been perceived by the people.  According to the Nielsen poll, people overwhelmingly reject the politics of nam koron and are divided on the daylight savings issue — government should take notice.  According to ORG-Quest, half the people believe the Awami League leadership lost control of its cadres (again, the government should pay attention)

5. Nearly three-quarters support the government’s decision re: Asian Highway and over three-quarters believe Indo-Bangla relations have improved, according to ORG-Quest.  This seems to be an indictment of the government’s India policy. 

6. Whereas the government has generally high approval, this is not the case for the opposition.  About two-fifths disapprove of the role the opposition has played in the past year.  Over three-quarters reject the opposition’s parliament boycott strategy. 

Together with less-than-good approval rating for its leadership, this should cause the BNP to reflect on its politics.  In addition to parliament boycott, BNP should revisit its strategy of pinning everything on the ‘India factor’.  If it is going to criticise the government’s India policy, it needs to do a better job than rely on people’s fear of India, because it is becoming increasingly clear that an old fashioned ‘India bogey’ based political strategy is no longer potent.

7. Finally, it is striking to note that two-thirds approve the regime installed by the coup on 11 January 2007.  I have opposed that regime consistently, and do not change my view.  But I do recognise that my opposition has to be better explained. 

This is more than academic.  As things stand, Awami League is very popular, and BNP is going backwards.  Eventually political cycle will turn, and AL will lose popularity, but if BNP’s decline proves terminal, the beneficiaries might be precisely those forces who brought us the 1/11 regime (and who enjoy far stronger popularity than BNP).

When AL lost power through violence and bloodshed in 1975, its political opponents in JSD, NAP or Muslim League didn’t come to power.  I urge all my comrades in the blogosphere and beyond to reflect on this.

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  2. Raihan said, on January 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I may sound conspiracy theorist, but given the important question you have raised- i think- it worth stating.

    1. what if AL tries to create an official pet opposition?
    Why I say so:-
    a)it is very easy to buy few BNP MPs and make them join JP. Make Ershad Chief Opposition leader.
    2)how being anti indian will serve pro US BNP walas?

    • jrahman said, on January 20, 2010 at 8:01 am

      Not necessarily conspiracy mongering. I heard speculations along the ‘Ershad as the opposition leader’ as early as Jan 2009. Can AL take the ‘Ershad strategy’? Sure.

      And yes, there are pro-US (and pro-business) anti-AL-ers who are uneasy about the ‘anti-Indian at all costs’ strategy taken by BNP. Will the pro-US anti-ALers unease lead to further splinter in the anti-AL politics? Possible.

      But I don’t think these will come to anything. Like it or not, the central plank of anti-AL politics is still BNP. Ershad doesn’t have the grassroot network to back a BNP turncoat in a tight seat in 2014 (assuming Ershad is still alive and well to do anything in 2014). If BNP is marginalised in the parliament, it will just become more extreme in the street. Whether that succeeds or fails will depend on AL’s performance.

      And that’s the point I made back in October: future division in our politics will depend on the success and failure of the 2nd Hasina government — India, 1971, Islam etc are not the crucial determinants.

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