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Opinions of Sunday, 30 November 2008

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Making sense out of the opinion polls

Opinion polls are everywhere in the run-up to the December 7 general elections. And in the race to win voters, there are competing claims as to which opinion poll is credible. The mechanisms for the opinion polls may range from the scientific to the near-scientific, and totally unscientific. In the totally unscientific polls, politicians poll spiritual mediums to project them, through their friendly media, as destined by God to win elections.

It may sound eerie but that’s Ghana’s democracy at work where all the social and cultural cogs are superbly set-in-emotion, more so in the last lap to the December general elections. It doesn’t matter whether politicians seek to use the polls to manipulate public opinion or the polls make politicians more informed about the will of the voters or spiritualists predict that God has already selected who will win the election.

It appears all the political parties have certain polling organizations and spiritualists that help them manipulate Ghanaians’ opinion to their advantage. At some moment it appears all the opinion polls coalesce, making them fuzzy and difficult to comprehend. Such polling behaviour may distort the politicians’ sense of how Ghanaian voters are informed by their messages and how the politicians will respond to the voters’ views and their will.

Some of the polls are so unintelligible that they make juju-marabout mediums and other marauding spiritualists, who are also ‘polled’ by the politicians to help them stage-manage public opinion, look near-scientific and credible. That may sound strange to non-Ghanaians but in Ghana, where scientific opinion polls are limited by infrastructure, spiritualists’, whom most Ghanaians access, hold sway over the largely gullible electorate who may not know the arcane manifestoes of the parties and understand the largely English-speaking politicians at national level.

But, like normal opinion polls, the ‘spiritualists’ opinion’ polls are influenced by money, pressure, ethnicity, and power. Scientific or not, opinion polls are road maps for politicians, and in the Ghanaian political culture, it could be as scientific as it could be spiritualists’ driven. As the December 7 general elections closes up various spiritualists have predicted either Nana Akufo-Addo, of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) or John Atta-Mills, of the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDC), or Paa Kawsi Nduom, of the Convention Peoples Party (CPP), as becoming President of the Republic of Ghana.

Broadly, this makes the real ‘opinion polls’ on the ground revealed through prophecies and other metaphysical mechanisms that have greater effects on superstitious Ghanaians. When news reports said voodoo priests from neighbouring Benin Republic and Togo (key centres of Africa’s voodoo practices) have set up camps in the neighbouring Volta region, in the run-up to the December 7 general elections, to sell their spiritual services to aspiring politicians, it is to battle head-on with the scientific opinion pollsters and show them where the real power and mechanisms to influence public opinion lies.

Unlike the scientific opinion polls, the spiritualists may not talk to voters directly but some spirits that purportedly can read Ghanaians minds or talk straight to Ghanaians’ Gods who tell them how Ghanaians are thinking about their candidates and the issues that concern them.

The irrational aside, Ghanaian opinion polls, enriched by the mobile phones more than the internet and other mass communication gadgets, is making more Ghanaians participate and letting their views known about how they feel about the diverse issues worrying them and how these are reflected by the presidential and parliamentary candidates.

The clash between the scientific and the ‘spiritualists opinion’ polls may explain the row between the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDC) over the various opinion polls that tell them that each will win the December 7 elections. Scrambles everywhere but they reflect the real Ghana. Real or manipulable, opinion polls making the round are almost suspect with each polling organization revealing their leaning towards particular party hyped by party-leaning media houses.

The Accra-based Danquah Institute says its polls show that NPP’s Akufo-Addo will win the presidential election. The Ghanaian-owned London, UK-based Policy & Strategy Associates, Inc. says NDC’s Atta-Mills will win. In-between these two quarrelling pollsters other agencies such as Primary Research Associates, National Commission for Civic Education, and Research International have carried polls where either Akufo-Addo or Atta-Mills wins the December presidential elections. Overall, most of the polls point to Akufo-Addo and his NPP winning the December 7 presidential and parliamentary elections.

No matter how contentious the polls are, much of the polls do not reveal whether Ghanaians want politicians refrain from certain policies (or actions) or not. Almost all the polls got to do with whether Akufo-Addo or Atta-Mills will win the elections. Yet still, opinion polls, argued Andre Blais, director of University of Montreal’s Canada Chair in Electoral Studies, as quoted by the Ottawa-based The Epoch Times, enriches democracy by making it go beyond voting itself and give citizens influential voice that are taken seriously by politicians. Polls also let voters know how other citizens feel about the elections.

In Ghana, where eight parties are contending the December 7 elections, information from opinion polls will help Ghanaians plan their voting. But as Ghanaians are finding out from the various polls, their outcome may be “off the mark” and “spread false information and distorting voters’ perspectives.” That’s the case when party-leaning pollsters reveal vested interest in the result of the polls and concentrate less on real policy positions of the parties. As Ghanaians are experiencing, when this happens, the elections coalesce into horse racing and newspaper headlines are more of who is ahead than on what they stand for. And this makes the scientific polls no more or no less than a spiritual medium giving a version of his opinion polls from some metaphysical mechanisms.

The opinion polls row between Danquah Institute and Policy & Strategy Associates, Inc. show that in the end it isn’t the polls that are the problem, it is how objective are the polls, whether from the spiritualists, and how the media focus more on voters than politicians contesting the vote.