“ALLOW ME TO quote the agri-food exchange prices at 18.00, obtained from a number of independent producers,” began one tweet. “Tomatoes [up to] 33.7 [zloty]… beetroots [are at] 8.9,” said the next. In the run-up to elections in Poland, Twitter tends to be full of such market talk. Not because tweeters take a sudden interest in vegetable prices, but because, like two-thirds of European countries, Poland bans the publication of polls just before elections. Tomatoes (in Polish, POmidory) are code for the Civic Platform (PO), a centre-right party; red beetroots signify the Left Democratic Alliance.
Across Europe the median pre-ballot blackout period lasts for two days. In Italy, Montenegro and Slovakia it lasts for more than two weeks. States justify such speech-gagging measures as a useful time for reflection. They add that muzzling pollsters reduces the risk that an inaccurate poll at the last minute will influence the result. Most countries also ban electioneering on election day itself.
Such embargoes are a joke. They have always been hard to enforce. With the spread of social media, the task is virtually impossible. Poles have merrily tweeted about the “prices” of “products” that sound suspiciously like political parties since at least 2011. “PIStachios” means the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), for example. In 2015 the then-ruling Civic Platform had another nickname: “octopus”, after some of its leaders were recorded swearing profusely over a taxpayer-financed seafood dinner with a price tag that shocked taxpayers. Before a local election in October, some social-media users celebrated as the price of Rafaello sweets was said to have surpassed 50 zloty in Warsaw. This was a reference to Rafal Trzaskowski, who trounced the government candidate to become the capital’s next mayor.
Banning pre-election polls makes access to information less equal. Parties and big firms can pay for private surveys. Astute voters can sift for credible data via foreign websites or the betting markets. Other voters are unlikely to do any of these things.
In the absence of reputable polls, bogus ones proliferate and mislead. Lifting the ban and letting pollsters poll seems wiser, and not just in Poland.