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. …