Debate needed on exit-polls strategy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am


In a free and pluralistic society like Hong Kong's, a debate about whether there is a need to regulate election-related opinion polls should not raise eyebrows. But when the call comes from a senior official of the central government's liaison office, it strikes a raw nerve. Hao Tiechuan, the director in charge of publicity, culture and sports development there suggested in a newspaper article that a ban on opinion polls in the run-up to a ballot could prevent political parties or candidates from making use of the findings to influence voters. The legislature, he said, could consider appropriate regulation.

Hao may have a point. At present, electoral guidelines prohibit the release of exit poll results until the ballot has closed. But there are no restrictions on pre-election day polls. The argument for restrictions is that such surveys can influence as well as just reflect public opinion, thereby affecting voting behaviour. The recent chief executive election saw a wealth of opinion polls on candidates' popularity. With the Legislative Council elections due in September, the question of whether regulation is needed warrants a serious debate.

Unfortunately, Hao's suggestion raised concerns about whether he was voicing the central government's position. It also stirred fears that the liaison office is interfering with the city's internal affairs. This was not the first time Hao has been seen by some as crossing the line of 'one country, two systems'. The former academic came under fire recently for questioning pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu's survey on people's Chinese identity. The strong public reaction to Hao's remarks shows people are still on their guard against any sign of erosion in one country and two systems. However, it should not be assumed that Hao's suggestion represents Beijing's official position. The question is whether Hong Kong people see the need to regulate surveys during elections. Pollster Chung has said he welcomes public discussion on the issue. He was concerned that voters would shun exit polls if they were worried the data would be passed to political parties for strategic canvassing on polling day. He said it would be good if the discussion concluded that exit polls, as well as pre-ballot surveys, should be subject to professional rules, although he doubted whether a free society like Hong Kong's would opt for that approach.

Some countries, such as Britain and Germany, have restrictions against releasing exit poll figures before the polling has concluded. Taiwan goes further, banning polls 10 days before the ballot. In the United States, however, exit poll results are often used to project winners while the ballot is still ongoing. The practice has led to criticism that exit polls can be manipulated to influence election results. A public consultation on the guidelines for Legco elections will close later this month. Hong Kong can draw reference from overseas as we explore the way forward.