The polling game: think tanks in the service of the Hungarian government

A few days ago Index received secret polling data that the Orbán government had ordered from Nézőpont Intézet, one of the two “think tanks” it relies on for information. (The other one is Századvég.) Since it was only yesterday that we talked about Fidesz’s heavy reliance on public opinion polls as a basis for policy decisions, the responsibility of these think tanks is enormous. Their results can make or break the government. If studies are improperly framed or if wrong conclusions are drawn, the government in its currently fragile state could make unpopular decisions and become dangerously vulnerable.

It is for this reason that many of us have wondered in the past about the efficacy of polls produced by Nézőpont and Századvég, whose results, in comparison to the other four or five pollsters, are always way off. Well, now that Nézőpont’s poll on the public’s reaction to amendments to the constitution and the Orbán government’s educational policies is no longer a secret, we understand how the commissioned polling game is played. The modus operandi of at least some of the hundreds of analysts who work at these two institutions can be compared to that of tax evaders who keep two sets of books. They prepare one study for the government that reflects the real state of affairs. Part of that study is then adjusted to take into account political expediencies and released to the unsuspecting public.

A perfect example of this kind of dirty game is the February study ordered from Nézőpont. The Fidesz government wanted to know what the public thought about the two important questions I mentioned above: educational policies and amendments to the constitution in the event of a threat of terrorism. Of course, that information was not shared with the public. Only from a poll by Medián did the public learn that 71% of the population consider the teachers’ demands justified. With a different set of questions Nézőpont arrived at similar results, which indicated that only 33% of the population think that the “educational reforms” have achieved “positive results.” With the exception of introducing daily gym, Hungarians think that the teachers’ dissatisfaction is legitimate and their demands reasonable.

think tank

How much did the public learn about the results of this wide-ranging poll conducted by Nezőpont? Not much. On February 24 Nézőpont released its findings with this headline: “Fidesz-KDNP is securely in the lead: The opposition parties haven’t profited from the teachers’ demonstration.” Századvég came out with the same results. Nothing has changed. It doesn’t matter what has happened in the last few months, Fidesz’s popularity is still soaring.

Other, well-respected pollsters came to different conclusions. Medián’s results were the most dramatic: they measured a 6% drop in support of Fidesz among active voters. Even more importantly, opposition parties gained voters. Publicus Intézet also came to the same conclusion. Fidesz gained considerably before December 2015 but since then has been steadily losing voters. According to their calculations, only 23% of the total population would vote for Fidesz today.

This downward slide is almost inevitable in light of public opinion on education. It is doubly so when we learn from this secret poll that Hungarians were not fooled by the Orbán rhetoric of a terrorist threat. Only 17% of them fully agree that amendments to the constitution are necessary. All in all, the population is divided on the issue. Slightly more (44%) oppose the amendments than support them (42%). Given this split, the decision was made to drop the idea.

But now that Orbán “adopted Brussels’ terror threat,” he decided to try to push through his proposed legislation. The rationale is that “thanks” to the terrorist attacks in Belgium, those who were opposed to the amendments back in February might have changed their minds. It is very possible that Nézőpont is already busily compiling its latest poll to guide the government’s strategy. We don’t know whether public opinion has changed on the subject since the events in Brussels, but the opposition leaders haven’t wavered. They are still united on the issue: no opposition party can ever vote for amendments that will result in what amounts to martial law.

Finally, here is a good example of how government client polling firms try to influence public opinion. We know from two very different sources (Nézőpont and Medián) that Hungarian public opinion is solidly behind the teachers. Yet Századvég about a week ago came out with its findings, which was summarized in the headline as “The majority of Hungarians don’t support the demonstration of the teachers.” Do they cheat outright or do they formulate their questions in such a way as to achieve certain desired results? The answer is most likely the latter.

So, let’s see how these pollsters go about their “task.” Századvég wanted to know what Hungarians think of the quality of education and came to the conclusion that “the Hungarian adult population is divided” on the issue. Forty-one percent think that it is “közepes,” a grade of C, and only 34% would give it an F, while 23% percent think that it is good (B) or excellent (A). Even Századvég felt that it had to say that “the majority thinks that there is plenty to change in the system.” But, according to Századvég, the overwhelming majority of the population “disapproves of the methods by which [the teachers] want to push through these changes.”

It is at this point that Századvég’s analysis becomes murky. It looks as if Századvég researchers reached the above conclusion based on answers to a question concerning the participants’ approval or disapproval of the decision of some parents to keep their children home as a sign of support for the teachers. This seems to me to be intentionally misleading because this particular issue was quite controversial at the time. A lot of people, although they wholeheartedly support the teachers’ demands, were against or ambivalent about involving students, especially small children, in the struggle of the teachers. A negative answer to this one question cannot be generalized to an overall disapproval of the “methods” the teachers employ.

Another misleading question dealt with the negotiations. As Századvég put it: “The percentage of those (78%) who think that results can be obtained only at the negotiating table and not on the streets greatly outweighed the 21% who believe that only demonstrations and ultimatums can achieve results.” The false dichotomy here is, I think, obvious at first glance. Everybody knows, including the teachers, that results can be achieved only at the bargaining table, but it is also clear that without pressure the government will either not negotiate or, if it does, it will do so on its own terms.

These kinds of misleading questions and conclusions are the daily fare of these polling clients of the Orbán government. This is especially so when they add that “these results tally with what László Palkovics and János Lázár said: that difficult technical questions cannot be discussed on the streets.” The conclusion? The government’s position perfectly reflects public opinion. Perfect harmony exists between the government and the governed. That’s why “think tanks” like Nézőpont and Századvég are at their core propaganda instruments of the Orbán government. Moreover, both are described as money laundering vehicles into which billions are poured from taxpayer money.

March 27, 2016
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Re: ‘Nezopont is already busily compiling its latest poll to guide the government’s strategy’

Arguably the pollsters probably already ‘know’ what the data should show. This is part of an ‘adjustment of fluctuations’ after getting that raw data in the practice of Fideszian political science. Nothing like industrious data ‘smoothing’ techniques to provide obfuscation rather than enlightenment of the real realities and experiences coursing along in the polled populations.

Double-entry bookkeeping: exactly! I am not sure about Nezopont (I simply don’t know), but rest assured that Szazadveg have all the money they need and the most accurate data available on the market today. What is fed to the government is reliable. What they publish is mere propaganda, distortion and deception. The problem is that even if “ONLY 23% of the total population would vote for Fidesz today” they are still winning, especially if you factor in the uncontrollable nearly half a million vote expected from beyond the borders. (This statement may be not entirely true today, since the sentiments are changing there as well, albeit very slowly). If they propose to squeeze the law on elections, again, that would be a clear sign that they are sensing trouble. (They have an excellent excuse referring to the gerrymandering practices in the US that essentially had silenced criticism in the US before the last general elections.) So far I see no such appeal in public however it may flow on as it does beyond the currents undetectably. Something is definitely brewing in Hungary. Not only beer. However this country never would be the same after the great leader has gone one… Read more »

Éva, I am sure they are simply lying about the results. There is a social-psychological factor that they are trying to encourage – that is, people are less likely to oppose something if they believe that the majority feel that it is okay. Some people will even change their opinions if they are convinced that the majority has a different opinion.

It is not just that Századvég is framing questions in a certain way. Századvég is simply lying and, through the “data” it releases, is trying to influence people to agree with whatever the government has done or wants to do.
The method is from advertising “70% of mothers say that their kids love Orthodentalplaxipop.”
The “results” of these “polls” are based on what the government wants people to think, not what they actually think. The “polls” are simply falsified, from the start. The so-called “data” has nothing to do with reality.


The same goes for Nézőpont, of course.


Let’s put Fidesz polls in perspective: they are there to support the result that Fidesz determines to have..


Orbán’s Depredations
Unlike Professor Balogh, who has been monitoring, analyzing and reporting on Orban’s depredations for nearly 20 years now, I only got my first clue in 2011, with the Philosopher Affair. But what I find remarkable is how just about every element of what was eventually going to become patently obvious to me — and to everyone else who pays attention — was already there, in its full, flagrant and foul colors and odors, in that formative and shocking affair, scarcely believable at the time, or even now. For me, as an academic, it has become a life-long wake-up call — and (academic) call to arms.
The escalating and unending revelations since then are hardly surprises any more, though they still take one’s breath away.
Stevan Harnad, External Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
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There is a guarantor of hope, however: You cannot keep concealing ongoing lies and crimes very long. And once the truth and evidence begins, inevitably, to seep out, the internet era of open access guarantees that they are outed big-time, globally, and fast.


You are absolutely right, and now a mea culpa from me: I did not speak out for Heller and her colleagues during the Philosopher Affair. I am ashamed of that.


I remember this “affair” very well and the way the Fidesz lunatics used it to discredit Agnes Heller and others – they behaved like hyenas (I know that comparison is unfair – to the hyenas …) and asked for jail sentences – sometimes it felt like they wished for the death sentence even …
That told me that hard core Fideszniks are really fascists!


Thanks, Stevan!
Now totally OT:
My wife’s sister and her husband visited us over Easter – he was a “manger” in a TSz and still has connections and told us unbelievable (but true …) stories about corruption in agriculture managed by the Fidesz nomenklatura which I can’t repeat here.
They really behave mafia-like with a total disregard to legality etc …
It’s so sad!

I think part of the complexity of polling on the issue of education are Hungarian perspectives on unionization in general. Even though most primary and secondary teachers in the 2,200 or so KLIK controlled schools are not members of one to the two major teachers unions the demonstrations have exhibited a high degree of unionized teacher presence. The union research arm in Hungary, the Szakszervezetek Gazdaság és Társadalomkutatási Intézete Alapítvány ( Economic and Social Research – Institute of Trade Unions Foundation – SZGTI ), helped provide some data on this issue in 2015. In Hungary there is some level resentment among young adults (usually defined up to the age of 29 but in some data sets all the way up to 35) who have less education to those that have more education. This is reflected in the unemployment data, so for example young people with educations at the upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary levels have been averaging an unemployment rate of about 22 to 24%, those younger people with even lower educational levels have been averaging an unemployment level of closer to 40-45%, whereas young people at educational levels necessary to become teachers have been averaging unemployment rates of 11-15%… Read more »

One of the recent TEK-gags on Hungarian FB: a tek vizsgalja, hogy a tutalibe-malibe talib-e? Pleease don’t ask to translate… -:) Sorry for that but I could not resist.