HKU may skip exit polls for Legco election

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 April, 2012, 12:00am


Leading pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu warns that his agency will be 'hesitant' about running exit polls for September's Legco election unless the rules are tightened.

The University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, which he heads, has carried out exit polls for Legislative Council and district council races since 1991, but Chung says it may not do so this year, after controversy surrounded exit polling in the 2008 Legco election.

Polling has long been regarded as playing a key role in reflecting public opinion and shaping the social and political arena in Hong Kong, which does not enjoy universal suffrage.

But some polling organisations were accused in 2008 of passing data to the pro-Beijing camp, allowing it to direct its supporters to vote for candidates who were in danger of losing. Pan-democrats called on voters to boycott exit polls, and some voters admitted lying to pollsters.

'Currently, the Electoral Affairs Commission just bans the media [in its guidelines] from announcing exit poll results before polling stations close ...' Chung said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

'But what if some pollsters privately pass on data to certain candidates for free [during the polling hours]?'

The proportion of voters responding to HKU's exit polls in 2008 slumped to 51 per cent, from 67 per cent in 2004.

Asked if he planned to conduct exit polls in September, Chung said: 'I am hesitant, as it probably won't be worth it. The data set may not be accurate, and hence the prediction may differ from the actual election results. If we do analysis based on false data, it will be useless.'

He said he would decide around July whether to run the polls.

The commission's proposed guidelines, released on March 28, for the Legco election do not address the possibility of polling agencies passing exit poll findings on to certain candidates for the purpose of electioneering.

Chung called on the commission to require pollsters to declare that their polls' results would not be used for partisan advocacy, or electioneering, on polling day and would be made public for analysis.

The proposed guidelines retain an existing rule under which the regulator 'reminds the media and organisations concerned' that they should not announce exit poll results before polling stations close.

Any person or organisation allowed to conduct exit polls will have to sign an undertaking to abide by the guidelines. Non-compliance may result in revocation of the permit and a reprimand or censure.

Consultation on the proposed guidelines closes on April 26.

In a newspaper commentary last month, Hao Tiechuan, the official in charge of publicity, culture and sports at the central government's liaison office, floated the idea of introducing legal restrictions, such as those seen in other jurisdictions, on pre-election polling.

Chung said it would be 'a bit strange' to do so, but he welcomed public discussion of the issue.

'Hong Kong prides itself as being one of the freest cities in the world, in particular where the economy is concerned,' Chung said.

'Given these circumstances, if the public discussion concludes that regulation is needed, I will feel that it's a bit strange.

'But if the discussion concludes that conducting of polls, including exit polls, and releasing findings should be subject to professional rules, it will be a good thing.'

Chung said he welcomed the discussion that ensued after Hao made his comments, adding: 'I am not worried that the discussion may end up with Hong Kong adopting Taiwan's model.'

Taiwan bans polls in the 10 days before an election.

Polling has become a hot issue after a series of incidents in recent months.

In another article in January, Hao accused some Hong Kong pollsters of conducting 'surveys that serve the interests of certain political parties' and that 'aim to influence public opinion'.

In February, Baptist University's dean of communication resigned after a furore over the release of early results from a survey before interviews for it had been completed.

Last month, HKU's programme organised a civil referendum to allow the public to have their say about the candidates for chief executive.

The referendum attracted more than 220,000 votes despite hackers' attacks on the online polling system. More than half the voters returned blank ballots, in an apparent show of dissatisfaction with what critics called the 'small-circle election'.

Chung said: 'People's civilised and proactive involvement in this civic activity was a very positive sign.'

The way they took part made him feel that 'Hong Kong's development as a civic society looks promising.'