Most Pakistanis want Musharraf to quit, poll shows

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Two-thirds of Pakistanis want President Pervez Musharraf to resign and his allies will fare badly in parliamentary elections next month, according to the first major poll published since he declared emergency rule.

The U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) poll comes weeks before the January 8 election, in which parties loyal to Musharraf are battling against two main opposition leaders, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

The poll showed more than two-thirds of Pakistanis opposed Musharraf’s move on November 3 to impose emergency rule and suspend the constitution. He then cracked down on the media, detained thousands of opponents and replaced the Supreme Court.

In the face of international pressure, Musharraf is set to lift the emergency on Saturday.

“These are absolutely the worst results Musharraf has seen. He was much higher only a year ago,” said Rob Varsalone, country director of IRI, which has been conducting polls in Pakistan since 2002.

The poll underscores Musharraf’s slumping popularity this year as the armed forces struggled with growing militant violence, while his attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry backfired and sparked widespread street protests.

Underscoring ongoing violence, two suicide bombers killed three soldiers, two civilians and wounded 18 people at a military checkpost in Baluchistan province, the latest of a series of such attacks that have killed more than 400 people since July.

Only 30 percent of those polled approved of the job the president was doing, the poll said.

When asked who respondents thought was the best leader to handle the problems facing Pakistan, 31 percent chose Bhutto, 25 percent cited Sharif and 23 percent said Musharraf.

Pakistan looks like it is heading for a hung election, which would force parties to seek alliances.

In a hypothetical election, Bhutto’s party would garner 30 percent, Sharif’s party would get 25 percent and the pro-Musharraf party would win 23 percent, the survey said.

The Islamist party alliance would only garner 3 percent.

If the poll were translated into election results, it would be a massive blow for Musharraf.

MUSHARRAF IN THE BALANCE

A poor election showing could mean a hostile parliament that might even move to impeach Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief last month, over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.

The poll could bolster accusations of voter fraud if the president’s allies actually do well in the vote. Opposition parties have vowed to protest against an unfair result, raising the prospect of more instability in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Election monitors in Pakistan expect the vote to be rigged.

Economic issues, not security and political problems, remained the greatest concerns for Pakistanis. Fifty-three percent of respondents described inflation as the top issue, amid sharp rises in the price of staples like bread.

“There is no atta (flour) in the market for the past many days,” said Yasmin Shaheen, a housewife struggling to feed her four children who dislike eating rice three times a day.

“We curse Musharraf every day as only he is responsible for this shortage.”

The survey, taken between November 19-28, polled 3,520 men and women from urban and rural communities in all four of Pakistan’s provinces.

Highlighting the ongoing opposition to Musharraf, up to 2,000 lawyers staged a rally in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday to demand restoration of Supreme Court judges as tens of thousands of lawyers boycotted proceedings around the country.

They chanted slogans against Musharraf. They also tore dozens of roadside posters and hoardings of candidates of the party that backs Musharraf.

Separately, Bhutto told reporters her party leader Aitzaz Ashan, one of Pakistan’s most important leaders who led a movement against Musharraf over his move to sack the Supreme Court Chief Justice, would not contest the January polls.

Several judges deposed by Musharraf are still being held under house arrest.

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