By Raissa Robles, Vera Files
Close allies of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo are behind the new polling firm StratPOLLS Inc., which recently showed administration candidate Gilberto Teodoro surging dramatically in its recent survey of presidential candidates.
Aware of the power of surveys to sway voters come election day, Congress enacted the Fair Election Act in 2001 to require polling firms to be more transparent. Last week, however, the Commission on Elections issued new rules that appear to weaken and in effect amend that section of the Fair Election Act on surveys.
Under the law, anyone can set up shop to conduct political surveys, which was what happened on July 29, 2009 when five incorporators formed StratPOLLS Inc. with a paid-up capital of P1 million. They include Dominga Rufina Chua, who owns the biggest share at 40 percent, and Benjamin Ramos and Feorelio Bote, who own 5 percent each.
Chua is a daughter of Ambassador Antonio Cabangon Chua who, together with Bote and Arroyo, formed The First Gentleman Foundation Inc. on May 28, 2002 to raise money for Arroyo's charity work. Ambassador Chua’s key aide, Benjamin Ramos, is a foundation officer but not an incorporator.
Ambassador Chua, the First Gentleman and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are widely known in the business community to be very close. For instance, before the 2004 presidential polls, the First Gentleman visited then Jaime Cardinal Sin to donate P1 million to the Archdiocese of Manila. An article in the Archdiocese of Manila website at that time said Arroyo was accompanied by Chua, then newly appointed ambassador to Laos, and “Chua's executive assistant Benjie Ramos.” The Website also quotes Sin advising them, “Tell Gloria to run” for president.
In August 2005, President Arroyo led the groundbreaking for Filipiniana Tagaytay Properties Inc., a multibillion-peso resort complex developed by the elder Chua, who also owns BusinessMirror newspaper, where Ramos sits as president.
Despite its owner’s close ties to the First Couple, the paper runs stories critical of the Arroyos. “We have editorial independence,” editor-in-chief Lourdes Molina Fernandez told VERA Files. “The ambassador doesn’t meddle. The publisher is his son, Anton,” she said, adding that the ambassador has friends of various political stripes.
Fernandez confirmed that StratPOLLS is a sister company but “we just get the results during the press conference like everybody else.” Another Chua-owned publication, Graphic magazine, obtains them first, she said.
StratPOLLS owners’ links to the Arroyo couple should not necessarily render its survey results suspect, said Dr. Elena Pernia, former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and a communications research expert not connected to any poll firm. But she cast doubt on some of StratPOLLS’ recent findings and conclusions.
“It’s misleading,” she said.
StratPOLLS surveyed 2,400 respondents from “30 key cities.” Twenty of these cities are in Luzon, including four in Metro Manila, and five each in the Visayas and non-Muslim Mindanao. The polling took place from Jan. 16 to 22, and the results and findings entitled, “Opinion poll on criteria used by Filipino voters in the selection of the next President of the Philippines: Preference for President.”
The findings, prepared by its executive director Alfredo Sureta Jr., concluded that “Teodoro is the biggest gainer” because his numbers rose in their maiden survey in September from 5 percent to 11 percent last month. Sen. Manuel Villar also edged closer to frontrunner Sen. Benigno Aquino III.
Sureta, who teaches political science at the University of the East, drew up a table where he added up StratPOLLS’ results to those of three other polling firms—Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia and a new opinion firm called The Center. He then divided the sum by four and noted the “average” which resulted in 38.5 percent for Aquino, 27 percent for Villar, 16.5 percent for ex-President Joseph Estrada, 7.5 percent for Teodoro and 4 percent for Sen. Richard Gordon.
Sureta explained he was copying “the practice in the United States, where poll results are printed side by side...with the hope that Philippine media would adopt the practice for the ‘maturation of Philippine democracy’ and a level playing field for candidates and voters alike.”
To prove his point, Sureta provided a table showing poll results of 10 American media outfits and universities on the question of whether respondents opposed or supported sending more troops to Afghanistan.
But Pernia, who holds a post-doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins University Center of Communication in Baltimore, said the American polls answerable by “yes” or “no” was far different from the Philippine polls, which asked respondents to name candidates.
She also said that adding up the poll results of each presidential candidate obtained by four different polling firms and then jotting down the average “is misrepresenting the data” and “misleading” the public. The averaging drives down the numbers of Aquino and Villar and raises that of Teodoro.
She said it misleads voters into thinking that the four polls were all alike when in fact their sampling procedures and assumptions were different.
Pernia said, “What StratPOLLS really wanted to show was the rise of Gibo (Teodoro).”
Sureta disagreed and said he had no intention of favoring any candidate or misleading voters. He said he averaged the results of four opinion firms because “from our perspective we only want to show different results of different firms. Beyond that, it’s up to the reader to assume but if you’re assuming those are different, well that’s a whole different view.”
He also said he made it clear their respondents came from 30 key cities nationwide. Told that SWS and Pulse Asia surveys included rural respondents, which Pulse Asia president Ronaldo Homes said comprised 51 percent of the voting population, Sureta said, “That’s for Pulse Asia to consider their own assumptions. We have our own sampling techniques.”
Sureta then clarified “we did include rural areas” but their interviewers used 30 cities as “anchor points.”
Sureta is not new in the polling business. He and a group of fellow academics from the University of Santo Tomas put up Proberz Inc., which conducted a nationwide exit poll during the 2004 presidential elections that showed actor Fernando Poe Jr. winning by 39 percent over Arroyo’s 35.
SWS’s exit poll had Arroyo winning by 45 percent over Poe’s 34. In that race, SWS was suspected of being pro-Poe because its founder Mahar Mangahas was his first cousin and its first survey showed Poe leading Arroyo 36 to 27 percent. But later surveys reversed this trend dramatically.
In this year’s polls, it is Pulse Asia’s turn to come under suspicion of bias since one of its incorporators, Rafa Lopa, is related to presidential frontrunner Aquino. Holmes said he replaced Lopa as company president in 2008 and their results were open to public scrutiny.
Unlike Pulse Asia and SWS, StratPOLLS soon intends to venture into the untested methods of polling using the Internet and mobile text messaging.
It declares its corporate mission to be to “function as an independent, non-partisan and academically committed source of primary survey data...relating to commercial products/services, mass media and social, political and economic issues.”
Sureta said, “I think the idea behind StratPOLLS is that Ambassador Chua wants an alternative source of public polling other than SWS.” He vouched for the firm’s impartiality, “even if some of the incorporators are allegedly close to the First Gentleman.”