Severe restrictions on freedom of expression in Bangladesh do not mean that the Awami League government is unpopular.
How credible is an opinion poll on politics in Bangladesh when half of those surveyed believe that there is no freedom of expression in the country?
This is the conundrum facing those trying to make sense of a wide-ranging opinion poll newly published by the International Republican Institute (IRI) which, if believed, indicates significant public support for the Awami League government.
The poll, released in the second week of January, found that 48% of the survey respondents believed that people in Bangladesh “do not feel free to express their opinions at all”, while 12% believed the exact opposite, that people are “completely free to express themselves”. The remaining 40% were somewhere in the middle..
It is a stain on a country when 48% of the people believe that they have no ability to express their opinions.
The IRI survey, which randomly questioned 4993 individuals between August 1st 2019 and September 16th 2019 as a representative sample of the country’s voting age adults, did not ask why they held this view, but the reasons are pretty evident — the arrests and general repression of those involved in opposition politics, and detentions of, and threats against, journalists and editors as well as social media users holding critical views of the government. This suppression goes hand in hand with the increasing use by the government of sophisticated technology to censor local and international media outlets including, for example, the blocking of Netra News’ main website.
There will be many who believe that the lack of freedom of expression in Bangladesh, so clearly expressed in this survey, means that one should discard many of its pro-government findings.
Geoffrey Macdonald, resident program director for Bangladesh at the IRI does not agree. As he responds in an email, “An anonymized survey is not a public expression of an opinion.”
He is right. It is quite possible for survey respondents to believe that people cannot express their political opinions, but at the same time provide truthful answers anonymously to a pollster. Moreover, were the survey respondents concerned about any perceived repercussions of giving an anti-government response, they could decide not to answer a particular question rather than giving an inaccurate answer, which the survey shows many sometimes did. The respondents’ willingness to refuse to answer questions can clearly be seen in the last IRI survey, conducted in the middle of 2018, in which 62% of the respondents “did not know” or “refused to answer” when asked “If the parliamentary elections were held next week, for which party would you vote?”
The IRI resident director for Bangladesh goes onto say that he nonetheless “understand[s] why these data raise questions about the honesty of answers to the rest of the survey,” but points out that a “majority of respondents were willing to criticize the government on several issues,” suggesting that most survey respondents were comfortable critically assessing the government’s performance.
So what do we learn from the opinion poll?
An overwhelming majority of 83% think the government is doing a good job, a significant increase from the 64% who did so in the last poll. On the other hand, only 36% of the respondents think the opposition is doing a good job, a reduction from 42% in the last poll.
More than 70% of the people interviewed approve of the government’s performance in seven areas — improving education (90%); availability of electricity (86%); transportation infrastructure (81%); availability of drinking water (77%); fighting violent extremism (76%); delivering quality healthcare (74%); and, keeping the peace (71%).
Corresponding with the level of approval for the government, 76% think that “things in Bangladesh” are going in the “right direction”, with only 15% thinking that it is going in the “wrong direction” (and 8% not knowing or refusing to answer). This is an increase from 62% in the last survey. The four most important reasons given by those who think the country is heading in the right direction are “overall development”, “better economy”, “transport infrastructure” and “higher living standards”.
Perception of the economy is an important factor in determining people’s views of the government. 76% of the respondents think that the economy is “good” or “very good”, with 54% thinking that it would improve in the coming year (with 24% refusing to answer). Only 21% of the people think that their own economic circumstances will get worse in the coming year, with most thinking they will remain the same or improve (with only 1% refusing to answer).
Many will find this opinion poll hard to accept, considering the sorry state of human rights, endemic corruption, and absence of democracy in the country. But, perhaps the poll itself helps explain why this is the case — these issues are apparently not of great importance to people. When the 15% of people, who do not think that the country is going in the right direction, were asked why they held this view, only 6% mentioned “lack of democracy”, 6% mentioned “people cannot express opinion”, and 5% noted “one sided government”. The most important issue that people cited to explain their negative outlook had nothing to do with democracy or human rights, but “low agricultural prices” which was referred to by 13%.
IRI did not publish the results of its question on which political party people would vote for if there was to be an election — which it has asked in all of its previous polls since 2014 — so it is difficult to know how these opinions translate into party support. In its 2018 poll, although 62% thought that the country was going in the right direction only 25% said that they would vote for the Awami League. At an election, people may want to vote for change, irrespective of their otherwise positive perceptions of the Awami League government. It was presumably this uncertainty of outcome which explains the party’s systematic rigging of the December 2018 election.
Apart from freedom of expression, the only other issue on which the government received a thumbs down was its tackling of the Rohingya refugee crisis, which 45% disapproved (33% strongly disapproved) compared to only 37% who approved. However, the opinion poll also shows that the Rohingya crisis is way down on the list of people’s concerns.
The survey results also contradict one popularly recounted view that most people in Bangladesh are strongly anti-Indian. The poll found that 51% of the respondents thought that India was having a positive impact on Bangladesh (23% thought “very positive”) with only 20% thinking it had a negative impact (10% “very negative”). 28% did not know or refused to answer. In fact, a higher percentage of people viewed India positively compared to China and the United States, though the levels of support for these three countries were pretty similar.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.
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