A possible referendum on the future of opinion polling in Uganda?
On the morning of Feb. 8, Ofwono Opondo drove from Buliisa district where he says he was doing campaign work to attend the release of the results of the latest Afrobarometer opinion poll.
Upbeat, the NRM deputy spokesperson was sure the pollsters were about to unveil another of the many poll boosts his party has experienced this campaign season.
“We do our political intelligence and I am sure this poll will go further to prove that we have a commanding lead,” Ofwono told The Independent at Imperial Royale Hotel even before the poll results were released.
Indeed the poll, carried out between Jan. 20 and 30, places his candidate Yoweri Museveni’s support at 65 percent compared to 15 percent for his closest challenger, Interparty Cooperation’s Kizza Besigye.
The 65 percent score for Museveni is an affirmation of the 66 percent he scored in the first poll released on December 18, 2010. Over the same period, Besigye’s rating grew by three percentage points to 15 percent.
It wasn’t the intention of the Deepening Democracy Programme (DDP) to finance another poll before the elections, but its officials say they felt obliged to do so owing to the public debate provoked by the earlier poll.
“This poll was conducted due to public demand,” said Robert Sentamu, the MD of Wilsken Agencies and Center for Democratic Governance, the Afrobarometer partners in Uganda.
The earlier poll was conducted in November/December, 2010 but it didn’t seem to reflect observers’ expectations of how the vote will turn out, prompting several questions.
The major argument from the opposition and observers was, and it will still be advanced in the face of the latest poll, what the NRM has done right to warrant such a significant gain in the rating.
They argue that the NRM mistakes like confrontation with the Buganda Kingdom should instead diminish its score.
The poll shows Museveni still leads in all regions and across among male and female. It also shows NRM leads in bribing voters, with 80 percent of the 2000 respondents saying they have been approached with offers of money, clothing and jobs to influence their voting intentions from the party.
Not even the rigorous campaigning the candidates have done, shows the poll, has led to significant change on voter choices. Only 10 percent of the respondents say they have changed their choices since the campaigns began.
To Afrobarometer and DDP, the poll was conducted as an attempt to validate the results of the earlier one, especially in view of the voices that were raised questioning the veracity of the conduct of the first poll. Afrobarometer has conducted similar polls in 20 African countries since 2000.
This they achieved because there are no significant shifts in the results, given the poll margin of error of +/-2. The poll was conducted in 250 villages in 71% of the districts.
The leading political opposition group, the Interparty Cooperation, maintains its view that the methodology used cannot yield an accurate picture on the ground and they suspect bad intentions on the part of the pollsters.
The FDC National Mobiliser Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu said the problem was that people, for fear of reprisals from the ruling party, took the politically smart choice to declare themselves as its supporters.
A source close to Besigye’s campaign who declined to be named because he isn’t the authorised spokesperson said what matters is not the accuracy of the poll results, but their interpretation.
“The poll is accurate but the problem is in the interpretation of the results,” the source said. “In a democracy, if 10 percent of the respondents say they are not free to speak freely in response to poll questions, then the election should be suspended to first deal with the problem.”
By 65 percent of the respondents saying that one has to be careful what they say about politics in this country, as they did in the latest poll, “the answer as to why people respond to poll questions (the way they do) stares you in the face,” the source said.
“The dangers of not supporting the NRM are real, one could even get killed as it happened in 2001 or be denied access to certain benefits like the NAADS programme,” the source added and said this makes it convenient for people to claim they support the ruling party, to avoid consequences, even if they intend to vote otherwise.
If this assessment is correct, then it is not all lost for the opposition. 79 percent of the respondents believe the vote is secret and it is not possible for the authorities to know who they voted. But 15 percent think the authorities could find out.
The FDC/IPC source observed: “The worst case scenario for Museveni is that he has 65 percent of those (the 35 percent) who say they don’t have to be careful what they say about politics,” the source says, “the best case scenario for him is that all the 35 percent who need not be careful to say what they feel are his supporters.”
He says it is logical to assume that the remaining 65 percent who feel the need to be careful about what they say about politics are opposition supporters.
And he says this ties in with their estimates. “We have consistently been estimating Besigye’s support at 60 percent and that of the remaining opposition candidates at 5 percent,” he said.
The pollsters, however, have a window to be absolved by the actual final election results coming on Feb. 20. But if the results don’t in any way reflect the results of Afrobarometer’s two polls, then the future of opinion polling in Uganda could be thrown in jeopardy.