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.
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.