On the new opinion polls
I was in Dhaka during the 2008 election. The day before the election, I told Asif Saleh that BNP was making a remarkable comeback and the election would be very tight. I was, of course, way off. Turns out so were pundits like Nayeemul Islam Khan, Asif Nazrul, Mahmudur Rahman and Nazim Kamran Chowdhury — who all noticed a massive momentum towards BNP. I was reminded of this episode last November, when Republican spinmeister Karl Rove refused to accept election results as they were coming in — apparently it wasn’t consistent with the momentum (Mittmentum) he had observed.
I (and more famous Deshi pundits) had an excuse. We didn’t have any proper opinion poll or survey data to guide our thinking. One pundit who did see such data — Zafar Sobhan — did predict an Awami landslide, and he was proved right. Of course, Rove and his ilk didn’t have such excuse. In America, people like Nate Silver looked at the polls and other relevant information and predicted the final election outcome quite accurately.
Compared with America (and other advanced democracies), opinion polls are still few and far between in Bangladesh. But compared with 2008, we now have regular polls by Daily Star and Prothom Alo. Good luck to anyone who believes they know the public pulse and don’t care for polls. Personally, I have no idea what the public believes, so I find these polls very interesting.
Here is the Daily Star survey, done by Centre for Strategic Research. Here are detailed results of Prothom Alo survey, conducted by ORG Quest (here is its news report, here is the methodology). As far as I can tell, these polls are done in the same way similar polls are done elsewhere. There are margins of error, and the polls are indicative of public opinion, not an exact predictor of anything.
With those caveats in mind, I think these polls should make BNP and Ershad supporters optimistic, while AL should be quite worried. The polls also hold interesting results for third force enthusiasts.
Who would win the election if one were held now?
Obviously that’s the key question anyone reading these polls most care about. According to the DS-CSR poll, AL would have received 42% vote against BNP’s 39%. The PA-ORG poll gives BNP 44% against AL’s 35%. Given the margins of error, and possible difference in exact questions, let’s round these numbers into fractions. What these polls tell us is that at least four out of every ten people would vote for BNP had there been an election now, while another four would vote for AL.
This is consistent with the 40-40 politics observed two years ago.
This is self-evidently good news for BNP, not so much for AL.
A key question is, where will the other two out of ten people go? According to the PA-ORG poll, Jatiya Party is supported by 12%, but DS-CSR puts JP’s support at 5%. Even if the true support for JP is towards the lower end of that range, it seems to me that without JP support, AL is heading for an electoral disaster of at least 2001 proportion. This should make HM Ershad very happy indeed.
In fact, it gets worse for AL. According to the DS-CSR poll, only about a quarter believe that a fair election is possible under a party-led government, and again, only a quarter support the cancellation of the caretaker system. Three-quarters of those surveyed by PA-ORG said that a fair election is not possible without a caretaker government. That is, even some people who would otherwise vote for AL believes AL can’t hold a free and fair election.
One way to interpret these results is that even if we think AL is supported by something like 40% of possible voters, only about 25% are its hard core supporters.
Meanwhile, the third force supporters should note that two-fifths of DS-CSR respondents think political culture is worsening, while over half of those polled by PA-ORG believe violent politics will return, and three-fifths expect no compromise between the two parties on the caretaker issue. One interepretation of these results is that most people would not be surprised by a 1996 or 2007 like situation.
But the third force supporters should also note that both Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia have high net approval ratings (approved minus disapproved), suggesting that minus-2 will not work. It’s also important to realise that these approval ratings aren’t head to head popularity contests — that is, one can’t say either leader is more popular than the other, because the surveys don’t ask that question.
Both polls also suggest that Nurul Islam Nahid and Obaidul Qadir are considered as successful ministers, while AMA Muhith is considered as a failure. Those looking for a leftist bias should note that the PA-ORG poll finds as high a disapproval rating for Motia Chowdhury as for Mr Muhith.
Finally, let me end with what I found to be the most interesting thing in these polls — this chart from the DS-CSR survey that tells us what will drive the next election result.
Listening to or reading various pundits, one might get the impression that the war crimes trial issue will determine the next election. Well, this is just one opinion poll. But it is still a more scientific guide than anything you get from pundits. And according to this, inflation and corruption are the factors that will decide the next election.