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Home > Issue 28: Democratic Formation in Palestine Periodic Reports (18) & (19) >

Public Opinion Polls and the Performance of Political Parties

2006-02-11
by Ahmad Majdalani

Introduction

Public opinion expresses the resultant views and thoughts and the general norms and laws spreading in the society at a specific period of time. This phenomenon which is the formation of public opinion can become a constant as long as no significant changes have affected it, or it may formulate new data upon which a new public opinion is formed. It may differ in its clarity and significance from one stage to another and in relation to the extent of awareness of individuals and groups. However, it is the result of a reciprocal and unconscious agreement between the majority despite their differences in realizing its concept and the extent of achieving their general and common interest.

Public opinion might be explicit and well expressed or it could be implicit. In the former, mass media and political, social and cultural organizations participate in making it well expressed. Such public opinion is very obvious in general elections and at the occurrence of important events. Public opinion might remain implicit due to political and social reasons, but soon it will appear as a form of explosion when the reasons to obstruct it are removed. In this instance, it is right to define public opinion as the opinion which the majority of the people hold and that attracts the attention of the higher authorities who can either adapt itself to it in order to bring about development or fail in noticing and adapting to it, in which case rebellion becomes inevitable. It is a fact that public opinion polls and surveys have become an integral part of future policy making and that it enjoys an ever increasing and influential role.

Governmental and non-governmental institutions give a lot of attention to measuring public opinion, studying it and identifying its attitudes through conducting emergency or periodical public opinion polls.

In their work, research and specialized bodies rely on three types of polls:

1. Periodic Polls

  • It surveys the political situation and it is usually implemented on a quarterly basis. It includes several questions relating to the general political condition, size of support for political movements and the citizens views regarding the performance of governmental and party institutions. In addition, it includes several questions which are being selected and focused on according to the current political stage in order to identify the citizen s opinion about it.
  • It surveys the economic situation and it is implemented semi annually. It includes questions relating to economic conditions like individual s income, prices, supply, and the citizen s opinion of the adopted economic policy and the citizen s opinion on how to get rid of inflation and unemployment.

2. Emergency Polls

  • It is those surveys which are prepared following a special event when it becomes essential to know the citizen s views as quickly as possible.

3. Specialized Surveys

  • It is a survey of sectors or specific political, economic or social groups that are selected according to the nature of the survey objectives. The system of constant criteria in selecting study samples, formulation of questions and analysis is not followed.

Democracy and Opinion Polls

An opinion poll is considered a social invention that cannot be separated from the institutional make up in which it performs its tasks. This means, regardless of the way its scientific expressions are phrased, it is in the first place an instrument which serves institutional objectives since it will be a means to verify the habits and priorities of individuals and groups in the presence of a complete plan of action It may provide correct and explicit indications concerning the major opinions and national, regional or local options in the society.

Opinion polls present an effective flow of information on two tracks: decision makers and the public. According to this view, the wishes and tendencies of the public provide, until verified, policy makers with criteria to allow the passing of rational decisions that are built on democratic basis. Democracy is reinforced through polls and surveys which allow the expression of the will of the people and its views on a periodic basis.

It is worth mentioning that opinion polls gain accountability and precision through contacts, experience and nurture. It is a democratic tool since it reveals public opinion through a number of people with anonymity. Therefore, it is a tool to help root out any kind of fear or hesitation in making or expressing an opinion. It has a simple variable percentage of error which does not influence decision making. An opinion poll represents clear evidence of the increased popular participation in the national policy since this participation is different from that in local or civil society institutions and organizations.

The process of surveying public opinion is an indication of the implications of population growth, civilization and popular mass media on politics and political parties especially at a time when party organizations are interacting at the social level with its reality influencing it and vice versa.

Some sociologists give several reasons for criticizing opinion polls. They consider the hypotheses of the researchers to be erroneous and that the means to collect data, formulation of questions and analysis techniques are incomplete, superficial or both. As for criticisms made by many politicians, political analysts and policy makers are connected with the way political life is influenced by opinion polls whether in strengthening or weakening democracy. Criticism focuses here on one outcome that it weakens democracy since it helps to the formation of a public opinion and influences its attitudes.

Palestinian Political Parties and Forces and Opinion Polls

The phenomenon of dealing with Palestinian opinion polls by Palestinian political partiesand forces is considered relatively new. It basically goes back to a number of influential factors, mainly the nature of conflict that the Palestinian people and its political forces are involved in since it is considered a struggle for liberation. It focuses on the political dimension rather than on the economic, social and democratic dimensions. Second it has to deal with the level of civil development in the Palestinian territories during the occupation period especially to what extent do citizens have access to modern means of communication and the extent of how much they are influenced by it.

These two main factors explain to a large extent the interest of political parties in opinion polls following the foundation of the Palestinian National Authority since many prerequisites that were missing in the past have become available. In addition, the holding of the first general Legislative elections in Palestine and the possibility to repeat this experience on more than one level and aspect and the establishment of a Palestinian government made it possible to measure the public opinion with regard to its practices and performance on all levels. All these factors have increased the political parties and forces interest in the results reflected by opinion polls.

The establishment of the Palestinian Authority generated a political struggle that was characterized by being sharp and serious at some stages. Therefore, the aim of many political parties focused on considering the popular mood or temperament that is reflected in opinion polls, or we may state that these parties started to draw its policies according to the popular mood rather than influencing the public opinion through adopting concrete positive policies based on economic and social plans and programs which have a democratic content which takes into consideration the profound interfusion between the completion of national liberation tasks from occupation and the democratic social nature of the political movement.

The late interest in opinion polls for the above mentioned reasons and using them not only as a tool to measure the amount of support but also to help in drawing policies, political programs and party positions is an increasing and growing phenomenon. This reflects to a large extent the quick pace of the development and advancement of the Palestinian people and its possession of means of communication on one hand and the ever increasing participation of the people in different life aspects on the other hand. It is also worth noting that the fundamentalist movement with its entire spectrum is considered one of the political movements who are mostly interested in opinion polls and draw their policies and tactics according to its results especially when they have to face the Authority or other political parties on certain issues. We can consider the experience of explosive attacks and the public support it receives as a natural and spontaneous reaction to the violent and ruthless occupation. This fact is one of the salient indications that made the religious fundamentalist movement exploit and encourage this form of liberation and raise it to the same level of the question itself in order to raise the level of public support for it or to keep its rank of support high. This has pushed other secular parties and forces to follow the same style in order to keep and gain the public support as reflected in the polls.

Attention should also be given to the fact that opinion polls do not only reflect a certain level of the democratization of the Palestinian political and social life, but also it reflects the extent to how much this tool was exploited in making a public opinion and influencing it. In this case, opinion polls play a role that does not help to develop and reinforce democracy in the Palestinian society.
Source: ATF Shu‘un Tanmawyyeh Issue 28



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