All eyes on opinion polls as Hong Kong chief executive election heats up

Though pollsters say such surveys play important reference role, others warn against relying fully on them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 7:21pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 11:04pm

With front runners former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor finally declaring their candidacy for the chief executive election, opinion polls will be closely watched in the coming weeks.

Since the polls started months ago, Tsang has maintained a lead, though support for Lam is rising.

But though ratings provide an idea of candidates’ popularity, assigning them too much importance may be dangerous. The chief executive race is not a direct election; the winner is voted in by 1,194 members of the Election Committee, and some have already said they would not be relying on the polls when voting.

Second, as the Donald Trump victory in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum have showed, leads in polls do not always translate to actual wins.

Dr Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs in the United States, told the Post that the US polling community and media got it wrong in the presidential election, and warned Hong Kong not to make the same mistake.

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“The focus before the election was on the general support for the candidates, but it is not the popular votes that actually vote for the president, it is the electoral college,” said Dr Young, who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University. As Hong Kong’s chief executive election will be decided by the panel dominated by the professional and business elite rather than popular votes, Young said people should not make the mistake of just focusing on the support ratings of hopeful candidates.

“The primary critique is we used the wrong tool for the problem. Who cares about the popular vote?” he said.

Holden Chow Ho-ding, a lawmaker with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong who has an EC vote, said he was sceptical about opinion polls. “Even if I consider opinion poll ratings as one of the factors, what is even more important is the platform of the candidate. We will put more emphasis on whether the candidate can help Hong Kong in the long run,” Chow said. “There are many organisations doing surveys; their reliability varies a lot.”

Last week, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s information coordinator Andrew Fung Wai-kwong criticised the University of Hong Kong’s polls in a newspaper column, saying there was a conspiracy to attack Lam by portraying her as unpopular. Leung is widely seen as having a rift with Tsang.

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But Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of HKU’s Public Opinion Programme, defended his polls. “When the system is not truly democratic, scientific opinion polls are even more important. We follow international standards, like that of World Association for Public Opinion Research, and such standards provide the best judgment for any pollster’s work,” he said.

Dr Li Pang-kwong of Lingnan University insisted opinion polls still play an important “reference” role. “Beijing already said the chief executive needs to be supported by the Hong Kong people. If the support percentages of two leading candidates are in the 40s, then it is okay to have either as chief executive. But if one is over 60 per cent and one about 20 per cent, then it makes no sense to choose the candidate [with less support],” Li said.

In all of the last four chief executive elections, the winners were candidates with the highest ratings in opinion polls. In March 2012, Leung Chun-ying’s support rate was 48 per cent, way above Henry Tang Ying-yen’s 35 per cent.

But even the democratic camp saw limitations in the use of opinion polls. “It is a “birdcage rating” because it is not a direct election,” said Lam Chuk-ting, a Democratic Party legislator, who also has a vote.

Lam added that most of the opinion polls were conducted before the front runners declared their candidacy, and they mostly reflected the impression of the candidates while they were still working in the government. “I am sure their ratings will change after they start the real political campaigning.”