The double-edged sword called opinion polls
It seems that pre-election survey predictions altered voters' behaviour and had an effect on the result of last weekend's city gubernatorial contestOpinion polls have always been suspected of influencing election outcomes one way or another. One theory about the March 3 Bangkok gubernatorial election is that Sukhumbhand Paribatra won largely because most pre-election polls had predicted he would lose, thus causing "disillusioned" Democrat supporters to stick with the party instead of going for an independent candidate.
Not that the authorities and others involved have not been aware of this phenomenon. In fact, pre-election surveys have always been a contentious issue. There were times when the news media were strictly barred from naming names when it came to reporting the results of opinion polls. In the not-so-distant past, newspapers only said "the leader" of a given political party was leading his closest rival by a given per cent. It was frustrating for the media, but did it make the game fairer? It most likely did.
Survey results can have big impacts. They can discourage voters who intended to vote for the "loser" from exercising their right if they hear their candidate has little chance of winning. On the other hand, outright leaders in opinion polls can suffer from complacency on the part of their supporters. In a neck-and-neck race, popularity surveys might help democracy by contributing to a large turnout, but the truth is that close contests are few and far between. And it's not uncommon for politicians who trail in the ratings to resort to nasty tactics that undermine democracy.
For last weekend's election, opinion polls played their controversial role against a highly complicated political backdrop. They predicted a comfortable win for Pheu Thai candidate Pongsapat Pongcharoen, causing the Democrats to launch fierce attacks that the government might have described as blows below the belt. One of the Democrats' strategies was to drum up the "fear factor" by telling voters that a Pongsapat victory would benefit Thaksin Shinawatra more than flood- and traffic-weary Bangkokians.
The outcome of the gubernatorial election refuted all the opinion polls. Quite a few analysts believe that "fears" caused by those surveys, or by the Democrats exploiting those surveys, contributed significantly to Sukhumbhand's record victory. Despite being dubbed the most colourless governor in recent times, he won a second term with more than 1.2 million votes. Pongsapat also became the first gubernatorial election loser to receive more than a million votes.
Looking back, Sukhumbhand and his party might have to thank the pollsters. Pongsapat and Pheu Thai, on the other hand, must be cursing them. However, in Thailand, the problem is that a problem is not always a problem. Pheu Thai never complains when rating surveys benefit them. The Democrats, meanwhile, lashed out at pro-Pongsapat survey results, but they know deep down that they owe Sukhumbhand's amazing triumph to those predicting he would lose.
Opinion polls, whether they are impeccably scientific or sloppily executed, can affect voters' actions. The question that everyone needs to revisit is whether the pros outweigh the cons. The polls surely provide jobs and make democracy more attractive, engaging and exciting, but they can also be manipulated or exploited, or by themselves give a false impression about a political situation.
The media certainly love opinion polls, which provide attractive headlines. But jurists in court cases are quarantined from the outside world for good reasons. The question we have to ask is whether voters equal jurists when it comes to deciding a country or city's future. If so, should voters be treated the same way as their courtroom counterparts? If not, things can be allowed to go on as usual, but we will have to live with the fact that a lot of voters will not make their choice based on candidates' merits alone, but also on pre-election numbers that might be right or wrong.