The World Public Opinion, an established polling organization, “a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland” came out with a randomly selected poll of slightly over 1000 Iranians. The WPO’s summary of the results are published on its website, including a link to PDF files with the survey’s full findings and its methodology. A very good analysis is published on Gary Sick‘s blog.
In this post I want to examine the questions Gary Sick raises. I believe that many of the issued raised in it can be explained by a general desire “to say the right thing.” However, the evidence can be otherwise interpreted. The italicized are abridged passages from his blog. They are followed by my comments.
Nearly one-third of the more than 1000 Iranians polled in this survey said that their own family’s economic situation had grown worse over the past four years; 45% said that the economic conditions of Iran had grown worse in that same time period. However, when asked “How much of the time do you think you can trust the national government in Tehran to do what is right?” by huge margins they say that they trust the government to take the right decisions most or some of the time (85%), up more than ten percent from the WPO poll in February 2008, and they expressed positive views about every major government institution by a margin of 70-80 percent or more.
The people’s economic difficulties are quantifiable. Iran is suffering rampant inflation and economic dislocation. I imagine this is not a matter of dispute. Nor was this the crux of Ahmadinejad’s campaign. And foreigners can (and are) blamed for much of Iran’s economic woes (and not without some justice). But criticizing the central government is quite another story…
After all, 57% of the respondents said that Iran was better able to resist foreign pressures than four years earlier.
This is actually quite a rebuke to Ahmadinejad, who had made this the centerpiece of his politics. Imagine if only 57% of the Iranian people thought that Iran was better able to resist the British during Dr. Mossadegh’s term than before! But a small majority of people dutifully said that under Ahmadinejad’s leadership, Iran was more anti-imperialist than Khatami.
Much more significant is the set of responses about the recent election, where 85 percent of eligible voters reportedly went to the polls and where President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a landslide 63 percent over Mir Hossein Moussavi (34 percent), Mehdi Karroubi (one percent) and Mohsen Rezaie (two percent).
In the PIPA sample, 87 percent said they had voted, which is remarkably consistent with the official tally. But the breakdown of the vote is quite different: Ahmadinejad 55 percent; Moussavi 14 percent; and four percent for the other two candidates. In other words, Ahmadinejad has lost nearly 9 percent from the official tally, and Moussavi has lost 20 percent. Perhaps even more intriguing is that an astonishing one out of four refused to say how they had voted.
The 14% for Mousavi could be a stark indication that the responders felt intimidated. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the no-answer surfeit of 10% does not change Mousavi’s figures much. If 90% of these were Mousavi votes, this would reflect a steep drop in his support, now totaling 23%. So a healthy chunk of those who said that they had voted for Ahmadinejad had actually voted for Mousavi, a true sign that the polled felt intimidated.
The only other possibility would seem to be that this reflected a defection of swing voters who shrank from the violence associated with the demonstrations he called into the streets and were not so much afraid to say they had supported Mousavi, but were ashamed to. This is not impossible. After the May-June 1968 revolt in France, the Left took a beating and the Right’s votes soared in the subsequent polling. In the United States, the turmoil after the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, as well as racial strife, was one of the chief forces propelling the Republicans into power.
When asked how they would vote if the election were to be held tomorrow, Ahmadinejad’s support drops to 49 percent, while 22 percent say either that they would not vote or refused to answer. This may be the most significant figure in the report, since a 49 percent vote for Ahmadinejad would require a runoff. That is what many opposition and outside observers actually expected…
6% of the voters polled are willing to admit that they regretted voting for Ahmadinejad, is a stinging rebuke, particularly if we believe that the Mousavi poll results indicate a level of intimidation.
There is one other troubling element in this report: the nature of the sample. Although carefully balanced by geographic distribution, age, sex, ethnicity, etc., it does not appear to be representative of the Iranian body politic in several respects. It is limited to people with land line telephones. Apparently they were not asked if they or other family members have a cell phone. Two-thirds of the respondents said that they do not have access to the internet, and of those who did only about ten percent accessed it regularly.
Iran is a highly wired country with more than 60,000 regular bloggers. It is also a country where cell phones, as is true around the world, are becoming ubiquitous (30 million in 2007, which is the latest reliable data I could find). Cell phone and internet are the two principal means of disseminating information about opposition activities. They are also the preferred form of communication of the 33% of eligible voters who are under the age of 30.
Given the heavy stigmatization of the internet by the government, particularly during the show trials, the poll’s internet deficit could be taken as another measure of intimidation. As our blogger put it, “Cell phone and internet are the two principal means of disseminating information about opposition activities.”
Eighty percent of the respondents in this study also say that they do not listen to any foreign news sources. That may be a fair representation of the listening habits of the Iranian public as a whole, but taken together with the lack of access to the internet it may help explain the answers to a series of questions on Iran’s political system.
This seems very unlikely to be accurate. According to an article published at the end of June 2009, the audience of VOA and allied services during the recent crisis was about 30%. A September 21, 2009 article says that the BBC lags a bit behind this. Of course, there would be some overlap, but the two audiences have different tastes and can be expected to not completely overlap. We might surmise, if we throw in Radio Israel, Deutsche Welle, and broadcasting from Holland, Italy, France, etc., that a majority, maybe even a large majority, of Iranians listen to foreign media. Moreover, these numbers are obtained by the same polling methods as the recent poll has–some Persian-speaking stranger asking if you listen to the BBC, etc. Therefore, these numbers should be considered to be a minimum. This is another indication, then, that the polled were not freely speaking their mind.
For whatever reason, the telephone respondents to this study appeared to be barely aware of any controversy over the June elections. In addition to their overwhelmingly positive opinions about every aspect of the current political system and all of its institutions, their expressed positions were almost identical to the interpretations that dominate the official media in Iran.
As our blogger said in his blog, “It may be that the Iranians in this study really have no other reliable information available to them, or perhaps that they know the dangers of departing from the official line and are feeding it back for their own purposes – or both.”
[R]espondents to this study say, by a margin of more than 70 percent, that individuals are completely or somewhat free to “express controversial political views, without fear of being harassed or punished.”
Given the persecution of the children of leading clerics, the death in prison of Mohsen Rezai’s aide’s son in prison, and so on, it would be hard to believe that this is a freely-given opinion.
Conclusion: Given this analysis, it seems hard to believe that the respondents were expressing their true feelings. Although in one of the issues allow interpretations inimicable to Mousavi and the other reformists, I fail to see how the others could be interpreted as anything but that the people felt compelled to give the “right” answer. This is particularly the case since the central government’s control over private electronic communications has been so well-advertised (although controlling landlines is probably more difficult than controlling the internet and cell phones.)