Slovakia debates: Do opinion polls lead to populist politics?

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The ubiquitous opinion poll is a well-used tool for political parties to assess the popularity of their policies. But in Slovakia there's a debate about whether excessive use of polls is leading to populist politics.

The Slovak political scene continues to witness the fiery branding of various parties with labels such as populism. Such a charge accuses the suspect of lacking a firm policy backbone and of being at the whim of public moods, regardless of what the right thing policy or economics-wise might be. It also points to an obsession on the side of the political parties, with carrying out opinion polls. Pavel Haulik is the director of the MVK public research agency. He insists that it is not just the political parties that order these surveys.

"Some of the questions or surveys which are eventually published are financed by the research agencies themselves. These include surveys on political preferences or on the popularity of individual politicians. The bigger surveys, many of which are never published, are paid for by the media, or by the political parties themselves. Overall we can say that when it comes to political surveys, it is the media and the political parties that order the most surveys".

As far as what kind of answers political parties want to get – Mr Haulik, is convinced that issues broadly grouped together under the heading of “image”, seem to dominate.

"Political parties are primarily interested in finding how individual personalities in their party are perceived how good their policies are, and which politician has the best chances of getting the most votes. There are however differences between the themes just before elections, and the inter-election period when broader strategies tend to make an appearance".

Ivan Dianiska works for the Focus research agency, and he is convinced that the influence of public surveys goes well beyond a simply narcissistic desire to know how popular individuals within the party are. He sees these surveys as playing an increasing role in actually shaping the parties’ policies.

"I think they have a strong influence because public surveys are followed very closely by the political parties, even though they can often refuse to admit it".

While he admits that surveys are popular with the political parties, Mr Haulik sees an obvious obstacle to the levels of influence that Mr Dianiska believes these surveys to have.

"It all depends on to what extent the politicians believe the outcomes of a survey to be an accurate picture of the state of society at that moment. There is still a lot of suspicion and distrust on behalf of the politicians towards public surveys, and concern that the surveys, and the outcomes may have been manipulated".

Despite this, Ivan Dianiska observes a definite trend in an increasing capacity by the political parties to interpret and utilize public surveys as an important policy formation tool.

"Over the past 15 years we have witnessed a certain professionalization within some of the political parties, in terms of advisors that focus specifically on public surveys. These people are better at understanding what is behind the numbers, how surveys are carried out, as well as what you can and what you cannot conclude from the findings".