It’s about time Malawi developed own public polling industry

A local outfit with a fancy name — Research Tech Consultants — suggested recently that President Joyce Banda would win the May 20elections.

Respected news organizations The Nation and Zodiak radio [and Nyasa Times] reported the findings, giving RTC bragging rights and the ruling party which is facing some tough competition a little bit of swagger.

The opposition however dismissed the poll which is part of the game. The aim is to encourage supporters who otherwise could be demotivated and stay home instead of going out to vote.

Malawi presidential hopefuls: Atupele, JB, Chakwera and Mutharika
Malawi presidential hopefuls: Atupele, JB, Chakwera and Mutharika.-Photo by Javier Dominiquez

But the playing down of the RTC poll by both the opposition and observers is not just one of those things. Given the stakes in this election, The Nation and Zodiak [and Nyasa Times] deserve to be lambasted for rolling out the red carpet for RTC.

An earlier poll by the Economist Intelligence Unit from the UK which favoured President Banda did not trigger the kind of reaction the RTC poll has simply because nobody but the two media houses know who these people are.

The latest poll by United States-based Afrobarometer released May 9 had Peter Mutharika of the former governing Democratic Progressive Party leading all the other contenders. Predictably, the poll was dismissed by those who want the public to believe otherwise.

There was another poll by the Catholic Commission for Justice & Peace and the National Democratic Institute testing strength of leaders and parties but it shied away from suggesting who would win if the election were held at the time survey was taken.

In politics a lot happens behind the scenes which the general public is not privy to. Polls do have sponsors and their findings may reflect the wishes of those who paid for the survey. Driven by the incentive to gain or remain in power, a party or its supporters could pay a market research firm to produce fake poll numbers and ensure that those results are reported by credible media institutions.

The furore over the polls can be understood it two ways. Some believe a poll is only a snapshot while others regard it as a forecast. As the two sides argue over what a poll means, there is a fact that perhaps should be part of the discourse: public affairs polling as an industry which is almost non-existent in Malawi. One needs to understand how the past, that is prior to 1994, contributed to the current state of affairs.

With Dr. Kamuzu Banda at the helm, Malawi was like other African countries whose dictatorial regimes were hostile to producers of knowledge at institutions of higher learning. Academic freedom was denied and subjects like Political Science and Journalism were not taught at the University of Malawi (Unima) which was the only university in the country at the time. Students could only get a whiff of the forbidden courses from courageous lecturers who taught other critical thinking skills in the Departments of Public Administration, English, Philosophy and others.

Today, 20 years after the political system opened up, Malawi has more universities which are free to teach any subject.

Political Science students with skills in collecting and analyzing survey data should be able to conduct public opinion polling. Businesses and publicly funded institutions like the Centre for Social Research (CSR) regularly use such skills to conduct surveys for different objectives.

While CSR was involved in the Afrobarometer survey, one would think that in this day and age, Chancellor College, Unima’s biggest constituent, would have been doing its own polling on public affairs led by the likes of political scientist Dr. Boniface Dulani who moonlights for Afrobarometer.

If there were reputable local polling organization(s) in the country, those interested in Tuesday’s election would have been saved from putting a lot of stock in just two surveys by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Afrobarometer.

Notwithstanding the fact that all the 12 contenders — main four are President Banda, Mutharika, United Democratic Front’s Atupele Muluzi and Malawi Congress Party’s Lazarus Chakwera — will tell voters why each poll is right or wrong, it is this author’s estimation that it is not all doom and gloom if Malawi makes a real effort to change this situation. Something good already happened this year.

Two decades after the first democratic elections, the country held its first presidential debates which hopefully will be repeated in 2019. But what should not be repeated five years from now is people being told by foreign pollsters just who might win when local professionals with letters after their names could and should be doing that job!

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