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Afrobarometer survey: storm in a tea cup?

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My friend Bruce Sosola put it very nicely on his Facebook page in a post called “Afrobarometer and its implications”. In his words, the report is a mixed bag depending on what you want to be intoxicated with. Malawi Congress Party (MCP) should celebrate because of the 32 percent who would vote for Lazarus Chakwera versus 27 percent who would pick Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Peter Mutharika. The main brilliant observation that has not been discussed yet is the fact that the same report indicates that 26 percent were affiliated to the DPP and only 20 percent were affiliated to the MCP? A contradiction of facts? The other key issue for both the MCP and the DPP is what of the 39 percent who are neither affiliated to the MCP nor indeed the DPP?

The good news to the DPP is that they still have two years to swing the votes their way if they so wish. The good news to the MCP is that it shows that there is a percentage of Malawians who are dissatisfied with the DPP and who, if they voted today, would give the MCP an edge over the DPP. Unfortunately, both the MCP and the DPP cannot take these results as a reflection of what is going to happen in 2019. Firstly, two years is a long time in politics and so many things can happen that can swing the opinion of the voters. The reality is that the celebrations in the MCP are premature while, on the other hand, the DPP cannot burry its head in the sand and simply dismiss these results. But as The Nutcracker has repeatedly stated, politicians are a very rare breed of homo sapiens whose notion of truth changes depending on whether the “truth” is on their side or not. In other words, in politics, truth is relative and facts are subject to varying interpretations.

Was it not only a few weeks ago when the same MCP gurus who are celebrating the Afrobarometer results claimed that the assertion by The Economist that Peter Mutharika would win the 2019 elections were dead wrong and, in the words of the Deputy Secretary General of the MCP, the win by DPP would be nothing short of a miracle. Similarly, the DPP celebrated that piece of information and what difference does a few weeks make that they now dismiss the results of the Afrobarometer survey?

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It will be a great service to the Malawi nation if the strategists of the main political parties start thinking beyond the survey results. For starters, the MCP cannot sit and smile; the current working relationship between the DPP and United Democratic Front (UDF) is very bad news for them indeed. If one assumes for now that the survey results are correct then there is a big issue to be taken into consideration. Of the people surveyed, eight percent are affiliated to the UDF and five percent are affiliated to the Peoples Party (PP). If the working relationship between DPP and UDF was maintained until the voting date then 34 percent of the voters would be affiliated to the DPP/UDF coalition versus 20 percent affiliated to the MCP. That is a clear advantage to the DPP candidate. Even if the MCP and the PP managed to come up with a coalition of some kind, this would translate into a 25 percent affiliation for the MCP/PP coalition.

In addition, the respondents of the survey stated that if the presidential elections were held at the time of the survey, 32 percent would pick the MCP, while 27 percent would pick the DPP candidate, 11 percent would opt for the UDF torchbearer, and seven percent would go for the PP. This again is very bad news for the MCP. If the working relationship between DPP and UDF becomes a permanent feature into election day, then the DPP/ UDF ticket would claim 38 percent of the votes against MCP’s 32 percent. And then there is the question of a whole 21 percent of the surveyed respondents who indicated that they would not vote (eight percent) or they claimed they did not know or refused to answer (13 percent).

However, The Nutcracker thinks the storm over the Afrobarometer survey is a storm in a tea cup. There are several reasons for this. First, the Brexit referendum and the US elections have demonstrated that opinion polls have misread the voting intentions of the voters by wide margins. So, this is just one of those polls that would mean nothing in two years’ time. Secondly, two years is a long time for the politicians to start celebrating. Malawi is a living testimony that two years is a century in politics, especially politics in Malawi. In 2012, after the demise of Bingu waMutharika, it was a given fact for most people that if elections were held then the PP would win, two years later the PP did not even come a close second but a distant third.

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Finally, no one— and I mean no one— is talking about the sample size. Statistically speaking no matter what method has been used, the size of the sample in relation to the population it is representing is extremely important in dealing with the biasness of the results. The results of the Afrobarometer survey were based on answers from 1,200 people. Yes, you are not misreading this, it is only 1,200 people who were interviewed. That translates into 0.007 percent of over 17 million people in Malawi. Even if one considers the 2014 registered voters of 7,470,806, this is only 0.01 percent of that group. Less than one percent of the voters. Ceteris paribus, is this a storm in tea cup? Only 2019 will tell.

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