Will Afghan Polling Data Help Alleviate Election Fraud?

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has commissioned a series of polls to see who Afghans favor in the April election. But between security challenges and "social desirability" biases, it can be difficult to impossible to get a clear read of the Afghan people.

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Opinion polls, as we know, are a mainstay in U.S. political campaigns. Well, now American officials are trying to bring that practice to Afghanistan as the country prepares to elect a new president in April. The U.S. embassy in Kabul has commissioned three rounds of polling in the lead-up to Afghanistan's election. The hope is that the polling data will help inform voters and candidates and reduce the potential for election fraud. NPR's Sean Carberry reports from Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE RINGING)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: While cellphones have proliferated since the fall of the Taliban, coverage isn't quite universal enough for effective telephone polling in Afghanistan. So that means conducting interviews face to face, says Alicia Boyd, vice president of Glevum Associates, one of three U.S. firms conducting election polling in Afghanistan.

ALICIA BOYD: You need to have a field team that is able to travel and is as similar to the people that you are interviewing as possible.

CARBERRY: Which means hiring a qualified Afghan organization with experience conducting surveys. Boyd says it's essential to build a rapport with the interviewee in a country where people tend to be suspicious of strangers who show up asking sensitive questions. And those questions need to be carefully worded.

BOYD: You have to use language that they can understand, especially considering that the education level is quite low.

CARBERRY: Forty percent of those surveyed in the Glevum poll never went to school and only four percent graduated from college. Dr. Pamela Hunter is Glevum's research director. She says questions used routinely in the West, with optional responses such as more likely or less likely, are too complex for Afghan voters.

DR. PAMELA HUNTER: So we tend to lean more towards yes and no questions, or it doesn't matter. You know, always giving them an out.

CARBERRY: By giving them an out, she means making it acceptable for people to give a negative answer. Chona Echavez, with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul think tank, says that Afghans often give answers that they think the surveyor wants to hear.

CHONA ECHAVEZ: You have the common sentiment that is being expressed, and then the survey says contrary to that common sentiment.

CARBERRY: For example, in the Glevum poll, 77 percent said they were at least somewhat confident that the elections will be fair and transparent. Yet most Afghans say past elections were marred by massive fraud. The pollsters and their U.S. sponsor recognize that some of the results will not be accurate, but the embassy in particular believes it's essential to establish baselines and make polling part of the political process here.

The two frontrunners in the polls released in recent weeks are Ashraf Ghani Amadzai, a former finance minister, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the leading opposition figure. Both ran in the 2009 presidential election. Right now they have double digit leads over the rest of the field. Analysts say that could be just a factor of name recognition at this early stage of the campaign.

SAYED TAHER: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: But Sayed Taher, a 46-year old fruit seller from Wardak Province, says he doesn't know any of the candidates. We heard similar comments from a number of Afghans who live outside Kabul.

EHSANULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Eighteen-year old Ehsanullah, who gave only one name, says he's opposed to the whole idea of polling in Afghanistan.

EHSANULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: The polling on TV humiliates some candidates. It shouldn't happen, he says.

Some officials have also expressed skepticism about the surveys, including presidential candidate Daoud Sultanzoi, who is polling around one percent right now.

DAOUD SULTANZOI: It's totally misleading and it's totally designed for other purposes.

CARBERRY: The U.S. Embassy says it expects to hear accusations that the polling is part of a plot to influence the outcome of the election. But American diplomats say it's worth the risk to have data that can help reduce fraud.

Christine Roehrs, with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, says even if the polling is sound, there's still the potential for a huge disparity between the polling data and the election results.

CHRISTINE ROEHRS: A person's personal opinion and his vote are two different things. The decision to vote is subject to a lot of different calculations and many have to do with the sheer survival.

CARBERRY: Such as tribal or ethnic affiliations, and whether a candidate is more likely to provide benefits to his supporters. Two more rounds of polling are planned between now and the April 5th election.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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