What’s the math?

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IRI survey may not be neat but it reflects the shift on ground

Figures have a rather interesting way of ruffling feathers. Those who have them on their side find a kind of smug-on effect while those at the receiving end tend to find refuge in its infallibility.

By no means is opinion poll an exact science but the margin of error in the developed countries does give the impression they have the arithmetic pretty much close to the ground. For instance, the single digit — in fact, single point — difference that separated Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in opinion polls a few times during last year’s U.S. presidential race brought home the reliability factor in spectacular fashion. Even the figures seemed to relate the turnaround Obama was able to fashion closer to the vote.

That however, is not the case with countries like Pakistan, where far from getting scientific results in a given experiment, these tend to be undermined by vague determinants. Even who conducts the exercise matters because there have been instances when NGOs attempting to make a count have not covered themselves with glory. Some have been known to have manipulated the results.

Admittedly, it is a huge call — the manpower, the resources, the reach and even a decent ability to make the questionnaire accessible to the semi and downright illiterate folk in a way that leaves no doubt about the specifics, including the context and time frame of the query, for instance. To be sure, yours truly is not the first one to conjecture on the subject but it begs repetition because it rarely passes muster.

While local surveys often run the risk of some sort of prejudice in one form or the other — when not laid back by a lack of human and financial resource — the foreign affair is impeded by insufficient local knowledge of issues, including cultural restrictions in terms of accessibility.

Then, there is the issue of sampling. In Pakistan’s rather limited poll stratosphere, often one comes across underwhelming samples where the dexterity of “diversity” is played out but figures don’t give much away about the real nautanki.

Having said that foreign surveys like the one attributed to International Republican Institute (IRI) do manage to arouse local interest for the simple reason that they still enjoy a modicum of respectability — credibility would be too encompassing a term for the kind of reliability that sticks in the local milieu.

Whatever figures IRI comes up with to draw the chart toppers every quarter, it manages to lure one party and draw the ire of the other. And so with the latest sample. This time, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf is not happy and the reason is obvious: his nemesis Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League has shot to the top of the table with everything to play for.

Khan’s example is interesting because predictably, he described the findings as devoid of credibility. The PTI chief also questioned why the IRI had not named the most popular leader of Pakistan (Khan has often won the ratings hands down).

When the IRI survey showed the PTI to be the top of the pile between February 9 and March 8 last year, the Kaptaan had excitedly tweeted about the results! Logic would suggest his indifferent air to the findings this time may, in fact, be a reflection of how the game is slipping away from PTI, and even the figures have begun to tell.

Even though one would insist the latest IRI sample — with just 4997 respondents (irrespective of the claim to representative demography) — was smallish, the findings do appear to reflect the changing scenario away from the much promised tsunami.

Consider: the findings in the period PTI was the numero uno — Feb. 9-March 8, 2012 — was indeed the time, the party was shaking the rafters. The rush of the October 31 Lahore jalsa and December 25 Karachi show was palpable. The charged crowds and the tremulous pull that sucked in hordes of ‘electables’ had begun to raise the heat and the IRI survey clearly reflected this radio gaga.

However, the momentum was lost a few months there hence — also resulting in the exit of a slew of ‘electables’ who Khan saw as fair weather friends, but it nevertheless did dampen things.

The game-changer was how the PPP and PML-N joined forces to ring in constitutional amendments to reinforce their power to oversee a caretaker setup that suited them.

This effectively took the wind out of the Kaptaan’s sails. In the gravitational pull of the likely winning ticket, wannabe parliamentarians found their new trajectory and so PML-N rebounded. The PPP will probably still pay for its lack of governance, the chess played out from Aiwan-e-Sadr notwithstanding — but that’s another story.

To come back to the public survey, the change of guard at the top was amply reflected in the last findings in August 2012 as well as the latest — both of which corroborate the shift. The PML-N has more than just regained ground; it has lured plentiful of ‘electables’, struck a significant deal with the Likeminded group of Muslim Leaguers and forged alliances across the spectrum.

True to form, the wannabe voters in the opinion poll have noticed the shift and seem willing to set store by PML-N. So if one were to draw a conclusion from the IRI pattern over time, the figures — for all their intrigue — do offer a vista, regardless of who embraces or rejects them.

The writer is Editor, Pique Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]