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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Predicting Yavlinsky Win

There are three types of lies," said Benjamin Disraeli. "Lies, damn lies, and statistics."

The problem with statistics is not how the data are gathered or how the results are calculated, but in how the results are interpreted and the conclusions are drawn.

For instance, many recent polls show 20 to 30 percent of voters support the Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, 15 to 20 percent support President Boris Yeltsin, 10 to 15 percent support Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, and Alexander Lebed and Vladimir Zhirinovsky each are supported by 5 to 10 percent.

Three conclusions are commonly drawn: 1) Zyuganov is the candidate most likely to win the presidency; 2) Yeltsin is the only candidate who has a chance to beat Zyuganov; and therefore 3) to keep Communists from returning to power, and to keep reforms alive, Western powers should support Yeltsin.

These three conclusions are clearly wrong. It is not the statistics themselves that are wrong, but the interpretation of the numbers that makes these conclusions more properly placed in one of Disraeli's first two categories.

Statistical theory was invented by 18th-century French mathematicians to be used in card games and other forms of gambling.

The election is compared to a roll of the dice; but the Russian electorate is not a pack of cards that we can sample to estimate what percentage of jokers there are in the deck. If they were like a pack of 105 million cards, statistical theory would say that we need only draw about 1,200 cards, to tell (plus or minus 3 percent) what proportion favors which candidate.

A second or even a fourth draw from the deck would not give much more information. Changes in the polls from one week to the next, say a 3 percent increase in support for one candidate, which is hyped by some of the media as "momentum," means next to nothing in statistical theory.

But the electorate obviously differs in many ways from a pack of cards. Many votes haven't yet decided who they will vote for, and unlike cards, many will change their minds before June 16.

My prediction of upcoming news is not favorable for either Zyuganov or Yeltsin. No news will be good news for Yeltsin. Any surprises are likely to be negative. But can you imagine the next two months passing without any surprises? Zyuganov appears to need to consolidate his support within the Communist Party. Almost 40 percent of voters in some polls are strongly against Zyuganov. If this number reaches 50 percent, obviously he can't win.

Yeltsin's negative rating may be even higher than Zyuganov's. Any serious bad news will kill his chances of being re-elected. An important number, which I haven't seen reported in any polls, is the percentage of voters strongly opposed to both Yeltsin and Zyuganov. If this number is higher than 15 percent, the "third place candidate," Yavlinsky, may actually be the favorite on election day.

Decks of cards don't lie to statisticians, but voters clearly lie to pollsters. In my hometown of Chicago, polls always show the "machine" candidate is favored. Would you tell a stranger on the telephone that you're against the mayor, if your garbage collection could be disrupted as a result?

This polling bias for the government candidate clearly works in Russia as well. Russia's Democratic Choice leader Yegor Gaidar and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government parties did much worse on election day than they did in the preceding polls. My interpretation of this bias is that at least 5 percent should be subtracted from Yeltsin's apparent support. He may not even be the second place candidate.

It is easy to criticize others' conclusions. To be fair, I should stick my own neck out and guess who will win the second round in the presidential election. I give my guesses in the form of the percentage chance that the candidate will become president. This is a completely different, but more important question, than the percent of voters supporting each candidate.

?Zhirinovsky -- less than 1 percent chance. Anything can happen in Russian politics, but not this time for this candidate. Fifty percent of voters are strongly against the State Duma's clown-prince.

?Lebed -- 10 percent chance. If both Zyuganov and Yeltsin stumble, anything can happen.

?Zyuganov -- 25 percent chance. He will almost certainly make it to the second round. But his support seems stuck at about 25 percent of the voters, with a very high percentage against him.

?Yeltsin -- 30 percent chance. Though he is no longer a reformer, most voters do not want a return to Communist rule and may support him against Zyuganov. But his position in power is an overrated factor, except for the media exposure. Provincial officials may try to steal the election for him, but probably only in the second round. He only has about a 50-50 chance of making the second round.

?Yavlinsky -- 35 percent chance. Most voters do not want the Communists and have been hurt by Yeltsin's non-reforms. Yavlinsky is the obvious choice for voters who are against both Communists and Yeltsin. In the second round against Zyuganov, polls consistently show him winning. Yavlinsky might have a slightly lower chance than Yeltsin of making it to the second round, but he has a much better chance of winning the second round.

The result is that June 16 will be the race for second place to Zyuganov. The winner of second place should be favored to win the presidency. This makes Western governments' support for Yeltsin seem misguided. A true reformer has at least as much chance of winning as Yeltsin. Respect for the Russian electorate and for democracy dictates a firm hands-off policy by Western governments.

Peter Ekman is a professor of finance at the American Institute of Business and Economics. This comment, which he contributed to The Moscow Times, represents his own views.