Political scientist Claude Longchamp is calling on parties in Switzerland to make better use of opinion polls to mobilise their supporters ahead of elections.
In an interview with swissinfo.ch, Longchamp says the country’s political system - based on power sharing rather than adversarial politics – does not lend itself to polls.
Sounding out public opinion became increasingly popular in election campaigns in the United States and some countries in Europe from the 1950s. For a long time there appeared to be little use for it in Switzerland where four parties dominated politics and elections did not bring about major changes.
Over the past two decades the method has gained in importance in Switzerland too, but is still regarded with scepticism by political parties. Pollsters who deliver bad news to a specific party or group often come in for harsh criticism.
Longchamp’s leading polling and research institute gfs.bern, which issues regular polls on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), swissinfo.ch’s parent company, has taken its share of the flak.
Compared with its competitors, the institute came out top with its polling results in the 2007 parliamentary elections. In the run-up to the next elections it is conducting a series of seven election barometers.
No more than a dozen opinion polls commissioned by the SBC and Sunday newspapers will be conducted in the 12 months ahead of October 23.
swissinfo.ch: Why are there so few polls carried out in Switzerland?
Claude Longchamp: Power sharing by all the main parties is a key tenet of the Swiss political system. The need to seek consensus means that the rivalry among the parties is less fierce and elections are not really about acquiring power.
This is unlike other countries where there is a majority party in government and an opposition, and political parties themselves commission surveys to test public opinion and gauge their popularity.
In contrast political parties in Switzerland have very limited financial means and are not interested in spending money on polls.
I’m not implying that polls commissioned by parties are rigged. But a certain bias cannot be ruled out and groups are tempted to publish positive results only.
swissinfo.ch: Opinion polls are published only about every other month in Switzerland. So why do they seem to prompt irritation more than anything else?
C.L.: Political parties want to keep their hopes of electoral success alive as long as possible. Therefore they have trouble accepting opinion polls with a negative message for them.
Some parties also try to blame opinion polls for their poor showing in a ballot, arguing grassroots supporters were put off by a survey.
I understand this attitude but it seems to me this is not an appropriate reaction. Many parties in Switzerland still have to learn how to respond to opinion polls.
Their attitude is perhaps due to decades of political stability in this country. The parties need to adapt to the changes of the past few years and the fact that there are more and more swing voters.
swissinfo.ch: What are the ways a party can react to an unfavourable opinion poll?
C.L.: It can try to ignore the result. But this can be tricky once the media spread the negative news widely. Or it can take a defeatist approach and consider the result of the poll inevitable.
The third option is to try and see it as a challenge to launch a convincing campaign and improve the mobilisation of grassroots support in the final phase of an election. This is what the Swiss People’s Party did in 2007.
swissinfo.ch: How significant are the figures when there is a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 per cent?
C.L.: The rule for our institute is that differences of up to one per cent are not relevant. For election barometers we only refer to changes of more than one per cent and they can indicate possible trends.
Of course polls have to take into account that respondents are influenced by emotional reactions to extraordinary political incidents be it on a domestic or an international level as seen recently with the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan.
Having said that, polls remain the most accurate method to forecast the outcome of an election. The difference between the results of the 2007 election and the figures of our final election barometer for the main parties did not exceed one per cent on average, to give you just one example.
swissinfo.ch: To what extent has the more volatile political scene with the emergence of new parties made opinion polls more difficult?
C.L.: Switzerland’s political environment has indeed become more complex. But there are other reasons for the increasing difficulties.
First of all, under Swiss law opinion polls must not be published within ten days of a vote. Therefore we have to carry out the interviews about 20 days ahead of election day, which prevents us from including last-minute developments.
Then there is the fact that we can no longer poll the Swiss expatriate community. In 2003 the authorities stopped providing the necessary information on Swiss citizens living abroad for reasons of data protection.
This is a serious setback for an election poll as the Swiss Abroad live in a different setting and do not necessarily vote like Swiss residents.
swissinfo.ch: What are the main differences?
C.L.: We do not really know, because the Federal Statistics Office does not analyse the results of the Swiss Abroad.
A survey among the Swiss expatriate community conducted in 2003 found that the Swiss Abroad on average have higher professional skills than their countrymen in Switzerland and that they are more inclined towards liberal political views and more open to the outside world.
At the time a majority of them said that they voted for the centre-right Radicals, the centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens. Whether this is still the case now is not clear.
The gfs.bern institute is the leading Swiss election poll agency.
The gfs-zurich institute produces the renowned Univox studies, long-term social research programmes including the Worry Barometer.
Other major public opinion and market research institutes in Switzerland are Demoscope and Isopublic.end of infobox
Born in 1957 the political scientist is director of the gfs.bern research and polling institute and lecturer at the universities of Zurich, St Gallen and Fribourg.
His institute has been carrying out opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) since 1992.
It also analyses voter sentiment for studies funded by the Federal Chancellery.
Longchamp is also responsible for a series of so-called SBC Election Barometers since 1999.end of infobox
(Adapted from Italian by Urs Geiser), swissinfo.ch