Hassen Zargouni: Opinion polls are ‘an asset to democracy’

Interview with the president of Tunisia’s leading polling company.
Thursday 10/12/2020
A file picture of Hassen Zargouni, president of Sigma Conseil. (Sigma)
A file picture of Hassen Zargouni, president of Sigma Conseil. (Sigma)

TUNIS--Most Tunisians know Hassen Zargouni, the president of leading opinion poll company Sigma Conseil, as the pollster who accurately projected the results of the 2019 presidential and legislative elections. His predictions were so accurate the Paris-based weekly Jeune Afrique dubbed him “The Bardo Oracle,” in reference to the Bardo district in the Tunisian capital from where he hails.

Zargouni’s projections were not wild guesses. They were the product of months of hard work. They also illustrated the progress made by his company and other political polling agencies since 2011.

These outfits now have the knowhow to offer their services elsewhere in the region. Such is the case of Sigma, created in 1998, which has offices in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. It also operates in more than twenty countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and more recently in sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.

A statistician by training and a graduate of the elite French school l’Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Economique (ENSAE), Zargouni is a permanent fixture in talk shows on Tunisian television channels, both during and outside election periods. He is described by a local analyst as “providing the digital face of social-political trends.”

Sigma has 120 full-time employees and relies on more than 2,000 part-time staff a year.

Sigma studies are based on quantitative surveys, as well as qualitative analysis, focus groups and in-depth interviews of target audiences.

Sigma’s data collection methods include face-to-face surveys, telephone calls or internet polls.

In his interview with The Arab Weekly, Zargouni assesses the evolution of opinion polling companies in Tunisia, the impact of their work on the country’s democratic transition and the interaction of both politicians and the public at large with the poll results

INTERVIEW

The Arab Weekly (TAW): How would you rate the evolution of the polling sector since 2011?  How has your company evolved since then?

Hassen Zargouni (HZ): Before 2011, polling institutes in Tunisia were confined to the sector of marketing research and media audience research. Telescoping with politics was rare except on the occasion of the few sociological surveys ordered by international institutions, UN agencies in particular, and which focused on gender or youth issues.

After 2011, institutes such as SIGMA widened their field of investigation to the study of public opinion in a more in-depth manner. Three types of surveys are now carried out on a regular basis. First, we conduct opinion polls with monthly barometers measuring the emotional state of Tunisians, their perceptions of the socio-economic situation and their level of confidence in the institutions and political figures. Then we conduct polls on voting intentions for legislative, presidential or local elections; and finally, we carry out exit polls, the results of which are presented on the evenings of election days.

Thanks to these regular activities and the accumulated know-how, both in terms of survey theory and practicing sampling techniques, several Tunisian consulting firms have set out to conquer markets in the Arab countries where assessing the orientation of public opinion has become a strategic variable for deciding and acting, both for local governments and for international powers. We then became real beacons for public policies until geostrategic change is achieved in some cases. Our institutes then began attracting the best researchers and the best statisticians, who no longer needed to migrate to find their professional and intellectual fulfilment.

A strong base of human resources, a proven know-how (and) a fairly solid technological infrastructure in Tunisia have enabled our institutes to compete with the largest in the world. For example, Sigma operates in more than 25 countries, on 3 continents, carrying out sample studies with Tunisian human resources and from Tunisia.

TAW. Do you think that the leaders of state institutions and political actors find guidance in polls to direct their actions?

HZ: At first we went through a phase of rejection, then came the phase of acceptance. Currently there is a relationship of trust between political or government decision-makers and serious polling firms in the country. Statistics have become essential for decision making. The culture of numbers and the streamlining of debates through studies is underway. We very often see strategic decisions that follow the results of our polls, such as the decision to run for office or not for a presidential candidate interested in finding his minimal chances of success. We also see it in the priorities set by governments and which match those recorded during periodic opinion polls, etc. We can safely say now there is serious consideration by decision-makers of the results of various studies on citizens’ perceptions, attitudes and behaviour.

TAW. Do Tunisian respondents speak frankly and spontaneously on all topics or are there instances where they practice some form of self-censorship?

HZ: Tunisians discovered free expression and have so far found an interest in responding freely, spontaneously and comprehensively to our surveys. They are not yet tired of surveys. This may not last. In addition, there are topics where their objectivity is challenged, especially when it comes to studies on religious practices or on certain themes related to individual freedoms and choices, and in this, they’re not much different than other populations in the world.

A Tunisian voter casts his ballot at a polling station during the Tunisian parliamentary election in October 2019. (AFP)
A Tunisian voter casts his ballot at a polling station during the Tunisian parliamentary election in October 2019. (AFP)

TAW: What role do polls play in the democratic transition?

HZ: Sample surveys and polling institutions such as ours are an asset to democracy. Today, it is illusory to think that you can practice fraud on a large scale during elections to the point of fooling the poll results of voter intentions, for example.

TAW: Do decision-makers and political actors have an interest in Tunisia’s image abroad and has Tunisia been able to preserve its initial image of a “success story” of the Arab Spring?

HZ: Tunisia has squandered the capital of sympathy it enjoyed a few months after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. The general public interest was largely absent from all political and partisan battles that have marked public life in Tunisia for the past ten years, to the point that the notion of enhancing the country’s international image has been relegated to the very bottom of the priorities of those in power and of the people themselves.

If Tunisia does not recover as quickly as possible, the Lebanese syndrome is lurking on the horizon, and that would be a huge waste because, like Lebanon, Tunisia has immense potential which allows it to bounce back and reinvent itself. This potential resides essentially in its human capital and its geostrategic position at the heart of the Mediterranean between Europe to the North and Africa to the South, and between the Orient and the West.