Tunisia’s Islamists’ low favourability ratings spark debate about polling

As their movement lost 15 percentage points of support in one month, Islamist leaders suggested pollsters were being biased against the party.
Sunday 19/05/2019
A 2014 file picture shows a Tunisian man looking at a list of candidates before casting his vote in the country’s presidential elections. (AFP)
In the mood for change. A 2014 file picture shows a Tunisian man looking at a list of candidates before casting his vote in the country’s presidential election. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement maintained its lead in most opinion polls over secularist groups, including parties backing Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, but expressed dismay at a suggested loss of support.

Ennahda lost 15 percentage points of support, a recent poll indicated, sparking a controversy about the accuracy and influence of pollsters ahead of November’s parliamentary elections.

“Ennahda went from 33% in voting intentions to 18% in a 1-month span. We are wondering what disaster struck the political landscape to cause such a reversal,” said Ennahda President Rached Ghannouchi after the release of a Sigma Conseil poll in early May.

The poll, conducted in April, indicated that newly formed secularist Tahya Tounes trailed Ennahda with 16.8% of voting intentions followed by rival secularist Nidaa Tounes at 16.3%.

The survey by Sigma Conseil in February gave Ennahda 24.7% backing among would-be voters with Nidaa Tounes scoring 20% and Tahya Tounes 11.9%.

Islamist leaders suggested pollsters were being biased against Ennahda but analysts said the survey results mirrored a shift in opinion of Tunisians who are increasingly disappointed by the performance of Ennahda and its allies in the government.

An Ennahda statement claimed the changes in poll results announced in early May “cannot be explained or justified” against “the skyrocketing ratings of other political parties.”

It said it detected “manipulation of the data, no more no less” by Sigma Conseil to bolster the image of Tahya Tounes.

Tahya Tounes, formed January 27 and then revealing its leadership in April, backs Chahed and said it plans to put forward an “innovative” platform to be competitive in this year’s elections. Tahya Tounes’s Secretary-General Selim Azzabi, a former Caid Essebsi chief-of-staff, said the party was born “big” and would be “the first party” in the elections.

Ennahda’s leaders insist that the movement will emerge as the “leading party” in the parliamentary elections.

Caid Essebsi, speaking on the fairness of opinion polls, said: “Such opinion surveys elevate a party to the top one day and push down the same party to the bottom the next day. My advice for those who feel hurt by these opinion polls is just to ignore them.”

Caid Essebsi, who towered over other possible contenders in voter preferences in past years, trailed political figures like Chahed in recent polls.

Sigma Conseil head Hassen Zargouni said: “If politicians are discontented by the results of the opinion polls, the company has no responsibility.

“Our data are automated. The algorithm used in our work is used everywhere in the world in the same way. The questions we ask are proposed by socio-political laboratories.”

Most Tunisians, including politicians, are unclear about the workings and dealing with polling firms because there is no legislation or supervisory body regulating their work even though the Election Law of 2014 required the adoption of a measure on polling.

“Who funds opinion polling companies? Who decides when they release the results of their findings? Who makes sure the questions they frame and ask are based on a degree of science and fairness or not just attempt to serve some hidden interests?  We do not know,” said Ghazi Chaouachi from the opposition Democratic Current party.

Sociologist Mohamed Jouili dismissed fears expressed by political leaders that opinion polls could have a determining effect on the vote.

“Studies of elections show that opinion polling companies do not steer voters towards any particular direction,” he said. “The companies do not decide the voting map in advance as many could believe. The opinion polls reflect a moment of elections when they carry the surveys and that changes quickly as results of events.”

Political writer Boutheina Laatar, reflecting the feelings of many Tunisians about the opinion polls, said: “The elections race had already started. Several factors will decide the outcome of the vote including opinion polls released by Sigma Conseil, Emrhod Consulting or C3 Studies.

“These pollsters represent a primary factor that could influence public opinion through the picking of the sample of individuals they ask for voting intentions.”.

A poll by International Institute for Public Opinion Studies and Social Science Forum in March for the daily Achourouk had Tahya Tounes at 19.6% support with Ennahda second at 19.2%.

The survey gave Democratic Current 15% backing of would-be voters while Nidaa Tounes was at 13.1%.

A poll by Benchmark Consulting showed one reassuring trend: A greater number of potential voters — 63% — than expected said they intend to vote in next elections. Analysts have speculated that a high turnout rate could be the Islamists’ real nightmare, not low ratings in surveys.

Election experts have said low turnout rates could benefit Islamists who have a disciplined electoral base that shows up in strong numbers to vote even when sympathisers of other parties do not.