By David Clark Scott, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
WITH only 103 days until Mexicans vote in what could be the closest presidential election in decades, a controversy has erupted over the validity of political polls.
And in Mexico, this isn't just salsa for political pundits.
The country has a 65-year history of single-party rule and elections marred by fraud allegations. Political analysts say the polls are setting up public expectations. If the electoral results do not jibe with the polls, opposition parties are likely to organize protest marches that could lead to violent unrest - as has happened after local elections in the recent past.
The polls are critical, says political commentator Sergio Sarmiento. "We need some proof because we Mexicans don't give credibility to electoral results."
But the credibility problem now extends to the polls.
No one questions that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate is the odds-on favorite - it is the size of the PRI lead that is hotly disputed.
In mid-April, the pro-government newspaper published a poll showing the PRI candidate with 63 percent of support, versus 16 for the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and 12 percent for the National Action Party (PAN).
The same week, the magazine Este Pais, published a poll by Market Research and Opinion International (MORI) that gave the PRI only 46 percent, the PRD 32 percent, and the PAN 22 percent. A May 11 MORI poll shows the PRI with 33 percent, and the PAN and PRD in a dead heat with 15 percent. The "undecideds" lead the tally with 36 percent. But snap polls taken since the May 12 debate between presidential candidates show the PAN has surged into second place.
Why the big difference between polls done by MORI and El Nacional?
Miguel Basanez, the director of MORI, cites the "Nicaragua syndrome." Before the 1990 presidential elections in Nicaragua, all but one pollster predicted a sweeping Sandinista victory. The Sandinistas lost by a wide margin.
"In a traditional Catholic society, lacking in democracy, the people are afraid to express their true opinion," Mr. Basanez says.
Unlike the other pollsters, Basanez does his polling in the street where people apparently express their opinions more freely - in anonymity - than surveys done door-to-door. Some Mexican political analysts cite a poll done by the daily newspaper Reforma in March that supports Basanez's methodology. Reforma interviewed two groups. One group was surveyed in their homes, and 35 percent expressed support for the PRI candidate. In another group, interviewed on the street, only 25 percent preferred the PRI.
Mr. Sarmiento says Mexico's politics and culture make reliable polling difficult. …