Measuring Opinion in Times of Transition: Politics and Public Opinion in Nepal between 2004 and 2008
Sharma, Sudhindra, Sen, Pawan Kumar, Contributions to Nepalese Studies
The longitudinal opinion survey on Nepal Contemporary Political Situation (NCPS) was conducted between 2004 and 2008, eventful years in the history. The existing data from survey of longitudinal public opinion, during such a crucial period in Nepal's history, allow for the possibility of examining people's thoughts, choices, preferences as well as their shift during the momenteous historical transition. With the access to the data of longitudinal public opinion in the public domain generated at a point in Nepali history when major political changes occurred, we can examine people's opinions at important historical junctures, re-examine Nepal's political transition in the light of the opinions of the public, and reflect on the relationship between public opinion and political events.
Some questions that come forth in this context are: On what issues have public opinion remained the same or changed? What accounts for the continuity or changes in public opinion on these issues? Have political events led to shift the public opinion? If so, on what specific ways has it done so? To what extent have the public opinion affected political outcomes? How are political events linked to the opinion of the public?
One of the reasons that made us explore the relationship between political events and public opinion survey is the discrepancy between people's preference on a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, that we noted in "Political Opinion Poll in Nepal's Context" Studies in History and Society (Sharma and Sen 2005b), and the establishment of Nepal as a federal democratic, secular republic by an elected constituent assembly in 2008. How does one account for the circumstances where political opinion polls claim something as the public preference while political parties elected from the public promulgate something else? However, this is not the only strange feature that we had noticed.
As discussions began to arise in the media on the nature of the Nepali state, one political event followed another in a dramatic fashion between 2004 and 2008. A high proportion of people in our survey responded as 'don't know / cannot say' to some of the questions such as, 'Who should rule the country to legitimize it?' or 'If the elections for the constituent assembly were to be held today, whom would you vote for?' In other words, it seemed to be a correlation between political events which questioned the very foundation of Nepali state, and a lack of certainty among the people as what the fundamental governance structure of the Nepali state should be. A very high proportion of 'don't know / cannot say' resembled the shifts in the fast-changing political terrain. It compelled us to probe into the relationship between political events and public opinion surveys.
In order to account the seeming contradictions and the ambigious nature of public's response in a political context marked by rapid flux, we began to examine the literature on public opinion formation and its change. Our curiosity regarding public opinion formation process was, to a certain extent, addressed in many articles in the compendium The Sage Handbook of Public Opinion Research (edited by: Wolfgang Donsbach and Michael W. Traugott, 2008). The articles in the compendium, however, were drawn largely from European and American contexts and experiences, they did not illuminate the relationship between politics and public opinions in the context of developing countries such as Nepal. It provides clues to understand such a relationship.
Based on a review of literature, we attempt here to postulate a conceptual framework to account for the formation of people's opinion in Nepal's context. We begin by sketching the framework of study and outlining its key elements. Then, we sketch, in broad contours, the political events between 2004 and 2008, and highlight the major findings of the each of the five public opinion polls. We discuss the continuity and changes in the public opinion and try to observe them in the fast-changing political circumstances. At the end, we conclude by assessing the relevance of the framework as well as speculate on what would have happened had the momentus decisions pertaining to major issues--monarchy versus republic, unitary versus federal, and Hindu versus secular--been taken through a referendum.
The longitudinal public opinion survey, NCPS, was undertaken five times between 2004 and 2008 which meant that it was, in principle, possible to relate the tumultuous political changes with the perceptions of the public. Had only one public opinion survey been undertaken, such an enterprise would not have been possible.
Public Opinion Formation: A Conceptual Framework
In a context like Nepal's, the main variables of a framework to account for public opinion formation process are as follows: protest movements, the ideas of the political elite, media coverage on the protest movements and the ideas of the political elite, and the role of local interlocutors in translating and disseminating ideas and messages (viz. the ideas of the political elites and the media messages) to the common people. Protest movements and the ideas of the political elite are covered and processed by the media, which conveys the processed stories to the public. The public could sort out the media messages directly or could do so indirectly through the help of local interlocutors. The role of protest movements, ideas of the political elite and the role of the media and local interlocutors are, however, not the sole explanatory variables of opinion formation processes.
An equally important variable is the self-censorship process among the public, and what it does to amplify or mute the specific opinions. Since the process described above is dynamic, based on how the media covers an issue or the inclination it makes, which may generate the impression that a certain opinion is the opinion of a majority of the population which in fact may not be the actual opinion of the majority. Nevertheless, the supposed majority-opinion through media coverage then works on those who do not subscribe to it through self-censorship process. What this in turn does is to amplify the opinion that are thought to be the opinion of majority and to mute and to eventually silence other opinion through a process known as "Spiral of Silence." Thus "Spiral of Silence" is the other part of the framework that accounts how shifts occur in the opinions of the public. The core elements of the framework are elaborated below.
Protest Movement: It refers to a movement launched by a group or a number of groups, which is undertaken as street protests in order to draw attention for its cause. The intention of such street protests is to mobilize potential adherents and constituents by garnering bystander support, while simultaneously demobilizing antagonists (Gamson 1989). In assessing how protest movements contribute to the more general discourse through which issues normally get resolved, and how more than the active participants, in such movements, the role of the larger public, the bystander becomes important. How the media reports on such movements become crucial in influencing the bystander. The reaction of the bystander-public among others, depends on whether or not the use of force by police appears legitimate in their eyes. Once it begins to receive media attention, it can set a media cycle with greater space in newspapers and more time on television and radio (Lang and Lang 2008; Patterson 2008) (1).
The Ideas of the Political Elite: Besides movements, agenda-building is also carried forward by the political elite. In circumstances, where there is a consensus among the political elite, the ideas of the political elite are carried by protest movements if these do not already form the basis of governance. Studies on democracy have shown that the viability and stability of democracy rests primarily on an elite consensus, and on democratic rules of the game. Evidence from a variety of democratic countries also confirms that elites show more support for civil libertarianism than the public at large. (Visser et al 2008; Mondak et al 2007; Parker et al 2008; Lange-Hoffman 2008). In Nepal's context, political elite could be members of the parliament, high ranking central committee party members of various political parties and articulate party leaders and party intellectuals.
Media Coverage: Studies on mass media and political opinion formation argue that the mass media affects public opinion through three inter-related processes: agenda-setting, framing and priming (Roessler 2008). Agenda setting refers to the process of mutual influence between media and audience perceptions of what the important issues in public life are. Framing refers to the patterns of interpretations which are prevalent in media coverage and in people's minds, and its emphasis on certain aspects of reality while ignoring others. Priming is the process by which dominant aspects of media coverage serve as criteria for individual decision-making. Media, however, could also lead to what is known as the "third-person effect," where people attribute stronger effects of media messages on others compared to themselves (Gunther et al 2008). People begin to assume that the ideas and issues generated by the media are the opinions of the majority (Moy 2008); people have faith on the information they receive from the media is accurate and reliable (Traugott 2008).
The Role of Local Interlocutors in "translating" and Disseminating Ideas: In a context as in Nepal, where there is a high proportion of illiterate people, oral culture predominates over the written, and the nuances of political discourses are not obvious to the ordinary person, local interlocutors translate ideas of the media into language that ordinary people understand. Research on social networks suggest that everyday conversation and gossip about politics enrich people's understanding of policies and elections (Parker et al 2008). Local interlocutors could also act as a reference group for individuals in that they can provide important social cues when people try to gauge the social climate of opinion. These could act as "filters" (filtering out unwanted ideas and information) or as "amplifiers" (making certain ideas and information more audible and visible) (Kepplinger 2008) (2). In the Nepali context, the local interlocutors are the local janne-sunne (who read magazines, listen to the radio and understand what it means, and can explain these things to others)--namely, the school teachers and local elites who are more often not affiliated to various political parties.
Even though the primary sources of the political knowledge of ordinary people are protest movements and the ideas of the political elite, it is the media that covers and conveys the message of the movements and the "conversations" of the political elite to the people--therefore its importance is high. The media discourse can be conceived of as a set of interpretive packages that gives meaning to an issue (3). The former two--protest movements and political elite discourses are the original sources of a wide range of information on which the formation and change of public opinion is based. But these are mediated by how these issues are framed and primmed by the media.
From Gamson (1989), we conceive media discourse and public opinion as two parallel systems of constructing meaning and avoiding to make causal assumptions. The media discourse (including the processes of agenda-setting, framing and priming discussed earlier) is an essential context for understanding the formation of public opinion on any issue, not just political ones.
Since ordinary people do not have an abiding interest in politics and neither have sufficient knowledge of it, they tend to form opinions alongwith the opinions of what they think the majority holds. Researches have shown how knowledge of what others think or believe, or how those opinions are changing, has an effect on an individual's opinions (Kepplinger 2008; Traugott 2008).
The terrain of public opinion is dynamic. Once people begin to feel that the opinions they have is in a minority, "Spiral of Silence" occurs. "Spiral of Silence", a theory formulated by a German social psychologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, postulates that people have a quasi-statistical sense that allows them to gauge the opinion climate in a society and through this, people become aware of the opinions of others around them. People adjust their opinions and behaviours accordingly. This theory holds that people are apprehensive of being on the losing side of the public debate and would therefore like to subscribe to the majority trends (Scheufele 2008).
A key concept in the formulation of "Spiral of Silence" is fear of isolation. This idea is based on the premise that social collectives threaten individuals who deviate from social norms, and majority views with isolation or even ostracism. This means that groups who see themselves in a minority or as losing ground tend to become less vocal and less willing to express themselves in public. This, in turn, will influence the visibility of majority and minority groups, and the minority group will appear weaker and weaker over time, simply because its members will be more and more reluctant to express their opinions in public (Scheufele 2008).
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
One of the distinctiveness of the spiral of silence is its dynamic character as it is a process that works over time. People's willingness to express their views publicly depends heavily on their perceptions on the viewpoints which are represented by a majority of citizens or which viewpoints are gaining ground. As people with minority viewpoints fall silent over time, perceptions of the majority opinion, which is gaining ground, increase. Ultimately, the reluctance of members of the perceived minority to express their opinions will establish the majority opinion as the predominant view, or even as a social norm (Scheufele 2008).
Sometimes there could even be a 'dual climate of opinion' in society. This occurs when the majority of the population have a specific stance on the issue but perception of which group is winning or losing the debate is just the opposite. A dual climate of opinion can develop because the media could adopt a particular slant which may create the impression that one particular opinion is dominant. This is because the effect of media coverage is consonant and cumulative. These are consonant in that there is a tendency of different media outlets to portray controversial issues in a homogeneous manner; media effects are cumulative, in that case their effects work upon an individual's perception over time (Scheufele 2008; Eveland and Glynn 2008).
Even though a majority of people, as NCPS surveys have shown, subscribed to constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, the media discourses (derived in part from reporting protest movements and providing forums to political leaders to articulate their ideas) create the impression among local interlocutors that a majority does not subscribe to
these views, who then amplify this message to the ordinary public. This leads to process of self-censorship among the public. A high proportion of Nepali people saying 'don't know / cannot say' can be interpreted as an intermediary step to conform with the supposed majority opinion that espouses republicanism and non-parliamentary form of democracy or at least not to oppose these principles prima facie. One may surmise that because of these processes at work, though public's specific preferences have not been entirely muffled--it has become more ambivalent and could be on its way to be silenced. This is an idea that is discussed further towards the end.
The "Spiral of Silence" theory also contains a clue as to who or which segment of society plays a decisive role in leading to a change in the climate of opinion: these are the young educated males (Scheufele 2008) (4). Compared to other sections of society, young educated males show less inhibition in expressing their view in public and exhibit less apprehension of being isolated even if their views were not to be shared by the majority. In the context of Nepal, where the young men are also likely to be the first generation of educated individuals in their households and in their communities, it is very likely that these young individuals would be self-assured in their convictions. As "avant-garde" (as this group is designated by Noelle-Neumann) propounding strong ideological beliefs, it is the young, educated males that initiate shifts in the public opinion barometer.
Politics between 2004 and 2008 and Major Opinion Poll Findings
After October 2002, Nepal entered into a constitutional crisis and political turmoil. The country since the …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Measuring Opinion in Times of Transition: Politics and Public Opinion in Nepal between 2004 and 2008. Contributors: Sharma, Sudhindra - Author, Sen, Pawan Kumar - Author. Journal title: Contributions to Nepalese Studies. Volume: 37. Issue: 2 Publication date: July 2010. Page number: 191+. © 2008 Research Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.