Political opinion polling is a big business. In more developed countries, political parties pay millions of dollars to research firms to help them figure out what the people are thinking. These numbers inform decisions and policy; there are entire teams of people whose job it is to make the numbers move in whatever direction they think will favour their party or candidate. In the run-up to the US election, expect to be overwhelmed with evolving approval ratings and competing statistics, as these have become the default mode of assessing the mood of the country and infer the result of the election.
In Africa, polling is a lot less prevalent. There are a few reasons for this. One, there are a number of countries where public opinion is not particularly relevant , at least as far as the politicians are concerned—these are autocracies and one-party states. Two, it’s an expensive exercise, and few parties or interested organisations have the means to pay for reliable surveys. Three, it’s a difficult job requiring specific skills and a shortage of companies that offer the service (although this is rapidly changing).
All this means that when polls are conducted, they’re generally exciting and often surprising. The latest public opinion survey to come out of Zimbabwe is no exception.
Conducted in June and July by Harare’s Mass Public Opinion Institute with input from South African political analyst Susan Booysen and paid for by Freedom House, the survey interviewed 1,198 people to get a snapshot of what Zimbabwe was thinking. This may not sound like a huge number, but it is considered statistically significant; polling organisations like Gallup and Afrobarometer require 1,000 responses, as a rule of thumb.
Interviewees where chosen randomly but according to demographic guidelines, to ensure an appropriate balance between male and female, rural and urban, and high- and low-income. Military barracks and police camps were excluded from the survey.
The numbers reveal a population that remains optimistic about the future, despite their fears of violence and intimidation and a general distrust of the political establishment. They also indicate that economic issues are more important to the average Zimbabwean than political restrictions.
There are a few surprises in the findings. For Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), the poll makes for very disturbing reading. Since the last comparable survey, conducted in 2010 in those euphoric times just after the formation of the government of national unity, the MDC-T has nose-dived in public opinion.
In the 18-month interim, overall trust in the party declined to 39% from 66%. This decline is too big to be dismissed as a result of a small sample size or as within the margin of error. Of those who told pollsters who they would vote for, if an election was held tomorrow, only 20% opted for the MDC-T, as compared to 38% in 2010.
“The honeymoon period is over for the MDC. The MDC has a lot of work to do if it wants to reconnect with its political base,” said Rashweat Mukundu, a Zimbabwean journalist with International Media Support. He explained that despite improvements in the economy, MDC-T was a victim of the high expectations it had created, often receiving the blame for service delivery failure. No such expectations attached to Zanu-PF, on the other hand, meaning President Robert Mugabe’s party couldn’t be as much of a disappointment.
In fact, far from disappointing, Zanu-PF’s poll numbers have climbed as fast as the MDC-T’s have dropped. Public trust in the party is at 52%, a remarkable 16% increase from 2010. Comrade Bob himself has also enjoyed a resurgence in popularity: some 58% of respondents said they trust the president, a jump from 43% in 2010. Morgan Tsvangirai, meanwhile, has plunged in their estimation. Just 3% think that he is the main power-holder in the inclusive government.
In general, however, Zimbabweans don’t have much faith in their in their politicians. Only 30% trust political parties on the whole. Given recent history, this seems sensible. And despite demonstrable economic advances, which survey respondents happily acknowledged, the approval rating of the inclusive government as a whole fell dramatically, with 44% of people describing its performance as poor or very poor, as compared to just 9% who felt this way in 2010.
Despite this, Zimbabwe’s long-suffering citizens remain optimistic, believing that positive change is just around the corner. When asked why they would vote in the next elections (expected sometime next year), by far the most popular response was that “this is the election that will make the difference.” Of those polled, 35% believed the upcoming elections will be free and fair; an overwhelming majority think they’ll be more free and fairer than the 2008 elections.
Of course, these numbers should be taken with a few pinches of salt. The sample size is small, even if it is statistically significant. People don’t always answer questions honestly, particularly in countries where political intimidation is routine. The questions themselves can sometimes be misleading or difficult to answer accurately. It’s also important to remember that even if the numbers were perfectly reliable, they are still just a snapshot of Zimbabwe at a particular moment in time.
Still, they are a fascinating insight and will doubtless prompt a few difficult discussions in MDC-T headquarters. Other opposition groups too must ask themselves some questions: even in the open-ended questions (i.e. ‘which political party would you vote for?’), theirs was a “miniscule” share of responses, according to Stephen Ndoma, principal researcher of the Mass Public Opinion Institute.
There’s plenty of time for hard questions to be asked and answered. Elections remain many months away. Let’s not forget that those are the only opinion polls that really matter. DM
Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe arrives to officiate the 32nd anniversary celebrations of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces at the National Sports stadium in Harare August 14, 2012. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
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