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"You are constantly feeding intimations to the people of Israel and conducting surveys that show a large decline for Shas," Interior Minister and Shas chairman Eli Yishai stated, referring to the media, at the rally for Shas women last week. "These polls are lies," he asserted. "No poll about us will succeed. The people in the lying media have forgotten that in the last elections and in the elections before those, too, they prophesied blatantly that Shas would end up with fewer seats, but we increased our strength dramatically."

Does Yishai not know that the media has no control over the results of the public opinion surveys and publishes them unvarnished? Of course he knows. So why is he lashing out at the media as though he were the last hooligan in "Aryeh Deri's Tanzim"? One answer is that he has to persuade his activists that the party is not headed for electoral disaster, because otherwise they might jump off the sinking ship. A second answer: In this election campaign Shas is suffering from a shortage of enemies to unite the camp, so the media has been roped in, too.

Still, if we ignore the conspiracy that Yishai attributes to the polls and consider only his contention that they have a tendency to underestimate Shas's strength, he is undoubtedly right. Among other failures, the pollsters did not forecast the hefty gains made by Shas in the last two general elections: from six to ten seats (1996) and from 10 to 17 in 1999. (Actually, there was one exception to this general failure: Rafi Smith, the director of the Smith Institute, predicted that Shas would make dramatic gains in 1999, though his forecast was 14 seats.)

Polls published last week again predict a large drop for Shas. The poll published on Friday in Ha'aretz, conducted by the Dialog firm under the direction of Prof. Camil Fuchs, shows Shas getting eight seats. In the economic daily Globes, a Rafi Smith poll gives the party eight to nine seats. And in the poll conducted by Mina Tzemach for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Shas gets only seven Knesset seats.

These results need to be seen in the proper proportions. Voters in the January 28, 2003 elections will cast only one ballot. Shas was the major benefactor from the two-ballot system - one for prime minister, the other for political party - surging from six to 17 seats in just seven years. Therefore, the prevailing view among political observers is that a decline from 17 to 10 seats, matching Shas's accomplishment in 1996, would reflect the party's real strength. Anything below 10 seats will be a failure; anything more than 10, an achievement. What the polls are currently showing lies between failure and implosion.

But are the polls wrong again? Fuchs and Tzemach, for example, agree that Shas voters, or at least the ultra-Orthodox among them, are among the publics that respond minimally to polls and therefore their share of the sample is biased downward. Another problem is that the polls give the same weight to a single mother who is voting, say, for Yisrael b'Aliyah as they do to a family with 12 children, three or four of whom may be Shas voters.

Smith believes that there are interviewees who do not say that they are going to vote for Shas, because that is still not a legitimate option in their perception. "There is still a problem that people are ashamed to say they will vote Shas," the party's spokesman, Itzik Sudari, agrees. An important element in Shas's success derives from a highly efficient organizational apparatus to transport people, including the elderly and the sick, to the polling stations. Public opinion surveys examine people's positions, not the prospect that they will have a lift to the polling station.

Are the pollsters capable of compensating for the shortfall of Shas voters in the sample? Ostensibly, yes. If, for example, fewer than 14 percent (equivalent to 17 seats) of the respondents state that they voted for Shas in the previous elections, the results can be weighted and adjusted accordingly. However, that, too, is a gamble. Mina Tzemach notes that "in the past our mistake was what we did not see Shas's rise; this time we see a decline." Even if this constitutes a mistake, it is a completely different case and therefore it is impossible to make inferences from previous elections.

Another characteristic of Shas in election polling is that as the elections draw closer it does better in the polls, though it never reaches the true outcome. One reason for this is that Shas usually concentrates its campaign into the last few weeks. In addition, the closer election day looms, the more demons of hate and strife are loosed, which bring voters back to Shas. In the previous elections, Rafi Smith says, Shas gained a "tidal wave" of voters in the very last days of the campaign.

Internal polls commissioned by Shas show that 17 percent of the party's voters in the previous elections (equivalent to three seats) are disappointed but still undecided. Shas will direct much of its campaign to winning over this group. For a party like Shas, which regularly maintains lists of hundreds of thousands of supporters, that should not prove very difficult. In any event, precisely on the basis of the polls that give Shas seven or eight seats, it will be a surprise if the party gets fewer than 10 seats. If on the eve of the elections the polls show that Shas will win 10 seats, it can hope for 12.