Thursday, December 09, 2010

The problem with public opinion polls

Remember the 1980 movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy?”

A Sho native in the Kalahari Desert found a Coke bottle, his very first encounter with technology, and decided to return it to God because his people started fighting over it when he brought it home in his village.

The most recent Pulse Asia survey gave President Noynoy Aquino with a very high 79 per cent approval rating, which means that nearly eight out of every ten Filipinos like what the President is doing. This is like Noynoy Aquino finding his Coke bottle on Mendiola on the way toward understanding the challenges and intricacies of a president’s job. The President’s circle of advisers must be fully elated now that their boss’s popularity continues to shoot up even after the elections had already been decided. Or this could be much akin to Shakespeare’s witches in the first act of Macbeth, foretelling his rise to power as king of Scotland. Better beware of the next two prophesies, especially the last one that tells of Macbeth’s downfall.

Considering all the trials and tribulations of Noynoy Aquino’s first 100 days in office, the gods must be crazy to give him a very high passing mark as president.

President Aquino’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said that the survey spoke glowingly of “the people’s trust in the President and official family,” which includes Noynoy’s sisters who are known to be the President’s closest advisers. Lacierda added that the survey showed the people understood the President’s efforts to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption and poverty.

Either the Pulse Asia survey got it wrong or it has joined the ranks of fanatics in the Aquino administration in denying the truth. Skim through the following and decide whether Mr. Aquino deserves this very high passing grade for his performance in the early months of his presidency:

 The Supreme Court ruled that Aquino’s order to create a Truth Tribunal is
unconstitutional, setting a major obstacle to his administration’s campaign
promise to prosecute former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for corruption.

 The Morong 43, a group of health workers detained for alleged links with the communist insurgency, have called on Aquino to order their release so they can be with their families this coming Christmas. Aquino replied that he could not do anything and it is up to the courts to decide on their fate, which surprisingly reveals his ignorance of the law.

 Last November 15, botanist Leonardo Co was killed when the 19th Infantry Battalion fired at him and others while they were conducting work inside the compound of the Energy Development Corporation. The military alleged that Co and his team were caught in the crossfire between the New People’s Army and the 19th Battalion.

 “Kuliglig” drivers were violently dispersed after they were banned from Manila inner streets. So-called “Kuliglig” for driving three-wheeled unique Filipino contraptions through the inner neighbourhoods of Manila to make a living, they said they would agree to regulation if they are compelled, but not to be deprived violently of their right to work.

 According to a research conducted by IBON Foundation, Filipinos would be assuming the burden of repaying 44 billion pesos for Aquino’s Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program. The administration’s CCT program will be funded by borrowings from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, which increases the debt burden on the people, thus strengthening the argument against the CCT as a dole-out program that brings no significant impact on genuine poverty eradication.

 Cases of extra-judicial killings and other human rights violations continue to pile up under the Aquino government. With 20 extra-judicial killings under his belt, Aquino has surpassed former Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s record during her last six months in office.

 On August 23, 2010, a dismissed Philippine National Police office hijacked a bus carrying a group of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong in Rizal Park. The ensuing rescue, shown live on television, resulted in the fatal shooting of eight tourists and the police officer. The Philippine government admitted the rescue operations were bungled and the Hong Kong government responded with a “black” travel alert to the Philippines.

 303 days have passed since Noynoy Aquino promised to distribute Hacienda Luisita to their rightful owners, and Noynoy’s promise remains outstanding.

If the above incidents bother your conscience, then you must be wondering why the recent Pulse Asia survey gave Mr. Aquino a flattering appraisal of his early presidency. But if by a miracle or whatever reason you happen to agree with the survey, then you are probably also living in another planet.

It is not surprising that President Noynoy Aquino continues to sleep on his job since induction to the presidency. He was a do-nothing member of Congress, both as a senator and a representative. Noynoy is an accidental president, brought to the highest position in the land because of the legacy of his parents, and not by his own merit.

But what does polling public opinion really suggest? Or is it any helpful at all?

Politics in the United States and Canada rely quite heavily on polling numbers. Bad polling numbers could in fact be disastrous. No politician would dare champion unpopular schemes or even seek public office when his numbers in the polls are too low. During the Clinton administration, social security and other key issues were almost entirely shaped by poll findings. For example, when Bill Clinton planned to make parents responsible for their children’s crimes drew dismal support in public opinion, he quickly retreated and abandoned his plan. In Canada, the sitting Prime Minister is likely to call for an election when the polling numbers favour his party.

Our government and leaders have been putting too much weight on polls, as if this is the best way to promote democracy. Obviously, poll surveys have serious shortcomings which may not be curable under present circumstances. Even if respondents are absolutely honest and the highest technical standards are satisfied, opinions sometimes can be politically irrelevant. Wrong opinions may be possibly collected and when leaders follow this guidance, they could be poor alternatives to intuition or personal experience.

President Aquino’s spokesperson was quick to exploit the Pulse Asia survey by saying that it “is an indication that the President and the public are in harmony as to national goals on the way to pursue reforms needed.” At this early in the President’s term, Lacierda must probably have spoken too soon. The most he could have accomplished was to massage Aquino’s ego into believing he has been doing his job well.

Perhaps, Vice President Jejomar Binay was more circumspect and prudent in his response to his 78 per cent approval rating by seeing it more as an expression of optimism and confidence in the future. If at all, the Pulse Asia survey shows a glimmer of hope, not a very reliable approval rating of presidential performance.

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