Q and A: The Growing Use of Polls in Kenyan Politics

Friday, December 21, 2007; 6:47 PM

In Kenya, presidential campaigns are making use of cell phone technology, high-powered PR firms and for the first time ever, political opinion polls, which were unthinkable during the repressive era of President Daniel Arap Moi.

George Waititu, managing director of the Steadman Group, the largest polling firm in sub-Saharan Africa, shared his thoughts on polling in an interview with correspondent Stephanie McCrummen.

Q. How did political polling come about in Kenya?

A. We've been doing market, social and media research more than 24 years now, and started in 2002 with some opinion polling, really because we had capacity and wherewithall to do polls. Before then, the political landscape was not conducive. So far, it has caused a lot of turbulence, but over time people have learned quite a bit about what polling means and what it's all about.

In 2002, we did polls and Kenya was rated the most optimistic country in the world. That was when we were having a political regime change, and that was the very first poll we ever did here, so there was a lot of interest and we presented those findings around the world.

This is the first presidential election where we're using polls. So what I say is that we have expanded the space in terms of freedom of expression. The electorate has a bigger voice to talk back. Polls are informing public debate quite well. The polls are heavily being used to guide political investment, which campaign to support, where to campaign etc.

So I think it is an indicator of the state of democracy here. I can tell you the countries that do the most polls tend to have high levels of democracy. And where democracy is absent, there's no polling.

Q. Are there logistical barriers to conducting polls in Kenya?

A. The polls here we do face-to-face, at the household level. Telephone does not give you a representative sample, and Internet penetration is growing but still not worth talking about.

So we do them face-to-face. There are logistical issues with travel, distances and the remoteness of some polling areas, the challenges of doing a questionaire in ten to 11 languages. But the advantage here is that people have time. They like being asked these questions. In rural areas they actually make you tea. So you don't have high refusal rates.

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