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Dr Mark Turner
After the release of the latest Social Weather Station (SWS) public opinion survey of voter intentions in the May elections, presidential candidate, Raul Roco, urged people to ‘ignore the surveys because they can be all wrong’; while the camp of presidential front-runner, Fernando Poe Jr questioned the integrity and accuracy of the poll which showed their leader to be losing ground.
Why is there such concern with the nationwide surveys of SWS, a small, private, non-stock and non-profit social research organisation? The dissatisfied political hopefuls often claim that the polls unfairly influence the electorate by encouraging people to jump on the bandwagons of those who are found to be most popular. In 1998, there was even a bill filed in the Senate attempting to prevent the publication and dissemination of surveys of voters’ intentions during an election period. But there is no empirical evidence to back up assertions that opinion polls influence election results. SWS enquiries have demonstrated that very few voters are swayed by the opinion polls, and even when this happens the tendency to ‘go for the underdog’ almost offsets the movement in favour of the ‘overdog’.
The probable reason for incumbent and aspiring politicians’ unhappiness with the SWS opinion polls is that they have been found to be consistently accurate. They predicted the narrow victory of Fidel Ramos in 1992, the easy win of Joseph Estrada in 1998, and the vice-presidential triumphs of Estrada in 1992 and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 1998. Even in the more statistically challenging business of choosing the twelve senatorial winners, SWS has been correct. Their latest survey shows the May 2004 presidential race being dominated by current President Macapagal-Arroyo and political neophyte Fernando Poe Jr. Arroyo. Macapagal-Arroyo was the choice of 31.8 per cent of respondents while Poe found support from 30.5 per cent. The other presidential hopefuls trailed well behind—Raul Roco 17.9 per cent, Panfilo Lacson 11.4 per cent, Eddie Villanueva 1.8 per cent and Eddie Gil 0 per cent.
Poe had been leading Arroyo by 10 per cent in January but his lead has been whittled away while Arroyo has enjoyed a steady growth in support as her election machine has slipped into gear across the country. Meanwhile Poe has been distracted by lengthy court battles to prove that he is a Filipino and thus eligible to stand. Like his friend and disgraced president Joseph Estrada, Poe is an actor having starred in more than 200 action movies in which he repeatedly saved the poor and vulnerable from a variety of villains and class enemies. Unlike Estrada, Poe has no political experience - a quality he claims to be a virtue and strength. Others view this situation with alarm, especially big business and the middle class. They worry about Poe’s naiveté and his capacity to deal with the multiplicity of serious problems which face the country today. Indicative of market concerns about Poe was the peso’s plunge to an all-time low against the US dollar when Poe announced his candidacy. But Arroyo cannot point to many successes during her presidency. The economy has performed poorly, unemployment rose to 12.7 percent in July 2003, budget deficits have been problematic, and there has been no coherent economic policy. Agrarian reform has progressed little and there has not been a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. The public has yet to decide whether it will be Poe or Arroyo who assumes the presidency. The ever-objective SWS notes that in its latest poll ‘the difference between GMA and FPJ is statistically insignificant’.
WATCHPOINT: Who will triumph in the May elections and will this mean a better future for the Philippines?
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