KPI survey mired in controversy
Institute scrambles to clear ‘misconceptions’ as media compares PMs, writes Mongkol Bangprapa
King Prajadhipok’s Institute’s latest announcement of public opinions gathered on Thai prime ministers of the past 15 years, originally aimed to mark the institute’s 19th anniversary, appears to instead have marred the institute’s image.
KPI’s secretary-general Wuthisarn Tanchai was forced to spend a full day clarifying the findings after the institute’s presentation on Sept 6, which he said was subject to much misinterpretation by the media.
Journalists were later also slammed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for requesting his comment on the matter.
Mr Wuthisarn said this was the first time he had spent time correcting misunderstandings of the institute’s findings since he assumed the KPI’s top post two years ago. It was not supposed to be the institute’s mission.
Central to the alleged misunderstanding in the KPI’s opinion survey is a controversial comparison of the popularity ratings of Gen Prayut and fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“That is not what the findings represent,” Mr Wuthisarn said.
He said the KPI intended to only gauge people’s views, and the institute was aware such comparisons cannot be made considering their different timeframes and contexts.
Still, this is what appeared to have caught the media’s eye and appealed to the public interest.
“We’ve never faced a problem like this before,” Mr Wuthisarn told the Bangkok Post, referring to the interpretations that subsequently led to a heated debate that lasted for several days.
In the survey conducted between April 24 and May 15, the KPI asked 33,420 people across the country how confident they were in the heads of state over the period 2002 to 2017.
Thaksin received an approval rating of 93% for the year 2003, while Gen Prayut got a 87.5% approval for 2015.
However, both their ratings for the following years were lower. Thaksin’s score was 77.2% for 2006, the year his government, accused of abuse of power, was toppled by a coup. Gen Prayut’s rating for 2016, two years after his rise to power, had dipped slightly to 84.6%.
According to Mr Wuthisarn, KPI intended to show what kind of popularity scores each prime minister received for “different periods”, but the media focused on comparing the rankings of different leaders, which led to what he claimed were misunderstandings.
It sparked doubts over KPI and why it dared conduct such a survey and present the findings.
When asked for a response by the media, Gen Prayut became frustrated while former prime minister and Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who won an approval rating of 61.6% for 2010 and only 51.2% for the following year, shrugged off the survey’s results.
Mr Abhisit said the results were probably influenced by the current political atmosphere in which many people did not trust politicians.
Meanwhile, in the Pheu Thai camp, its former Lop Buri MP Amnuay Khlangpha was quick to attribute Thaksin’s high rankings to many of his policies that aimed to satisfy public needs.
The ripple effects of the findings went even further, leading some media to ask whether the survey results would affect the general election scheduled for late next year, even though it should be clear the findings cannot answer such questions, Mr Wuthisarn said.
The way KPI’s survey was inferred caused Mr Wuthisarn to cast doubt on the role of journalists, saying he is not completely convinced they failed to understand the survey results.
Some members of the media were led to draw comparisons between Gen Prayut and Thaksin because they believed such a story would “sell” better, even though it could contain distorted facts, Mr Wuthisarn said.
In the media world, news is often influenced by individual values, which are subjective, Mr Wuthisarn said.
He added that perhaps some media members did not only want to sell news, but they probably had other motives as well.
Some information which people receive may not be always true, he said. With the spread of news becoming so much faster because of online social networks, it can be “very dangerous if people ‘like’ and share [such information] without checking”, Mr Wuthisarn said.
The controversy over KPI’s latest opinion survey will urge it to be more cautious about presenting surveys in the future, he said.
The institute does not serve any particular political camp and has been established with a mission to educate people on democracy and political affairs, he added.
As KPI’s fourth secretary-general, Mr Wuthisarn said he is committed to maintaining the KPI’s reputation, using his experience as a former member of the nowdefunct National Reform Assembly and ex role as deputy dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Social Administration.
Opinion surveys are part of KPI’s mission and have been conducted since 2002 without any problems, until the announcement of its latest findings, he said.
Mr Wuthisarn said he was not as concerned about the damage that has been done to KPI’s image as he is about the manner in which information is communicated in society.
He said in the current political atmosphere, where social unity is still elusive, incorrect information in the form of news stories can create new conflicts.
This is a real problem with no evident solution, Mr Wuthisarn said.
We’ve never faced a problem like this before.
WUTHISARN TANCHAI KING PRAJADHIPOK’S INSTITUTE SECRETARY-GENERAL
Wuthisarn Tanchai, secretary- general of King Prajadhipok’s Institute, expresses concern over what he claims was a “misinterpretation” of KPI’s latest survey of public opinion concerning past and present prime ministers that placed Thaksin Shinawatra as the nation’s darling. TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD