As politicians seek to spin poll results released in recent weeks to their advantage in the lead-up to next month’s commune election, the microscope is now falling on how accurate these surveys are and whether they are even asking the right questions.
Although Prime Minister Hun Sen has lauded high approval ratings, which a Gallup poll last week put at 93 per cent, the opposition can point to a survey from the same firm released last month that found a mere two per cent of the country felt they were thriving.
The divergent results might leave some people scratching their heads, but observers are attributing them to several factors including broad, conceptually misleading questions such as whether the country is “heading in the right or wrong direction”.
Eighty-one per cent of people replied in the affirmative to this question, according to an International Republican Institute poll released last week.
The poll, compiled from 2,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in all 24 of Cambodia’s provinces over a one-month period from November to December, has posed the question in previous polls since 2006, when 60 per cent answered affirmatively.
But Koul Panha, executive director of election monitor Comfrel, said for many rural Cambodians, the term “right direction” would not be understood as it would in the city.
“We see that some remote people maybe they do not see the big picture – ‘right direction’ – this word does not translate clearly,” he said.
Son Chhay, an opposition lawmaker with the Sam Rainsy Party, wanted more of a historical context to the question.
“Is it getting better compared to Pol Pot or what? They should ask a simple question that people are able to respond to easily.”
The top six reasons respondents gave for their upbeat assessments dealt with infrastructure: more roads built, more schools, health clinics, bridges and pagodas.
For the 19 per cent who think the country is headed in the wrong direction, the prime culprits were corruption, nepotism and high commodity prices.
Matt Lakin, head of IRI in Cambodia, said he does not comment on the results or provide any analysis.
He pointed to the detailed methodology, adding: “We’ve asked the same question in eight different surveys.”
The nationwide poll had a response rate of 95 per cent and included all provinces and municipalities.
An email to a Gallup representative about why its two polls appeared to conflict with each other was not immediately returned.
But the polarising polls made sense to Pa Nguon Teang, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, who said access to news in the provinces is limited.
“Most of the information people throughout the country have, they are through the pro-government channels,” he said. “For me, I think the poll is not wrong, the perception is wrong. What they are showing reflects the people’s perception.”
Still, Pa Nguon Teang said, a culture of not speaking out against the powers that be is pervasive. Growing up in Kampong Cham province, where 256 people took part in IRE’s survey this year, he said he experienced the problem first-hand.
Relatives drilled the lesson of silence into him again and again, as if it would come up on a test sometime in the future.
“My family always warned me, always taught me, not to get involved, not to criticise public officials – it’s better to be silent than to be speaking,” he said. “When the direct question is raised, ‘do you support the government?’ most of the people will say, yes, I support the government.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Joseph Freeman at [email protected]