I don’t trust the results of opinion polls conducted in countries with repressive and authoritarian regimes.
No matter how careful the independent pollsters are, people who live under a despotic government cannot be expected to give a stranger an honest dissenting opinion. If you have lived for decades with official deceit, intimidation, coercion, and spying, you are unlikely to trust a polling service, no matter how independent it purports to be. Why should you?
So the following article in The Washington Post should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it’s food for thought:
The Iranian People Speak
The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin — greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election.
While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad’s principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.
Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, preelection polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy. By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years.
What makes this particular poll interesting is that it showed Ahmadinejad in the lead by an even wider margin than he “won” the actual election with. If the balloting was as rigged as the opposition claims, why wasn’t the electoral margin higher than in this poll? Does the balloting process in Iran give voters a greater assurance of privacy than they would expect from a telephone poll? Or is there another reason for the discrepancy?
In any case, if you believe the poll, Mad Jad was very popular with Iranian voters:
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The breadth of Ahmadinejad’s support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.
The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.
So the strongest opposition to Ahmadinejad came from the young people who have been so prominent on the streets of Tehran for the last few days. Given the lack of reliable independent media which could provide them with trustworthy information, it’s hardly surprising that they consider the election illegitimate, and their votes stolen.
But were the results really all that far from the true level of support for President Ahmadinejad?
The article is at pains to emphasize how the pollsters controlled for honesty in the answers people gave:
Some might argue that the professed support for Ahmadinejad we found simply reflected fearful respondents’ reluctance to provide honest answers to pollsters. Yet the integrity of our results is confirmed by the politically risky responses Iranians were willing to give to a host of questions. For instance, nearly four in five Iranians — including most Ahmadinejad supporters — said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran’s supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities for their government, virtually tied with improving the national economy. These were hardly “politically correct” responses to voice publicly in a largely authoritarian society.
Indeed, and consistently among all three of our surveys over the past two years, more than 70 percent of Iranians also expressed support for providing full access to weapons inspectors and a guarantee that Iran will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, in return for outside aid and investment. And 77 percent of Iranians favored normal relations and trade with the United States, another result consistent with our previous findings.
The idea that Ahmadinejad is the Persian equivalent of “Nixon going to China” I find somewhat hard to swallow:
Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal — rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.
Allegations of fraud and electoral manipulation will serve to further isolate Iran and are likely to increase its belligerence and intransigence against the outside world. Before other countries, including the United States, jump to the conclusion that the Iranian presidential elections were fraudulent, with the grave consequences such charges could bring, they should consider all independent information. The fact may simply be that the reelection of President Ahmadinejad is what the Iranian people wanted.
In any case, it’s a possibility that we ought to consider: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — even if his 66% win is hogwash — is popular in enough in Iran to win an unrigged election.
As an analogy, consider Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler was very popular in 1938, and a free, fair, and secret ballot would likely have returned a resounding victory for him. And bear in mind that at that point he had had only five years with full control of the state media and the apparatus of government repression.
The people of Iran have been living under the iron fist of the ayatollahs for thirty years.
It would not be at all surprising if they really do love Big Brother.
Hat tip: Frontinus.