Public support for Musharraf plummets as Pakistan heads toward elections
The Associated Press
By Rohan Sullivan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Support for Pakistan’s military president has plunged since his botched bid to fire the country’s top judge, according to an opinion poll published Wednesday, while a think tank warned his determination to retain power could fuel Islamic radicalism.

The latest poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found dissatisfaction with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has surged this year with 63 percent of respondents backing his resignation along with a strong rise in support for his political rivals.

The poll also showed a rising sense of insecurity in the country, and widespread concern about religious extremism.

Based on interviews with 4,000 randomly selected adults in rural and city locations across Pakistan, the poll comes as the country heads toward presidential and legislative elections. Musharraf is expected to seek a new five-year term.

The institute gave a margin of error of plus or minus 1.58 percentage points for the poll, which was conducted between mid-June and early July.

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in 1999, is embroiled in the toughest stretch of his rule. He faces intensifying pressure to restore democracy, widespread anger at last month’s deadly military raid of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, and surging pro-Taliban violence.

“Voters are increasingly pessimistic about the economy, their security, and the direction of the country,” with most blame directed at the government, the institute said in its analysis of the poll results. “President Musharraf is also personally bearing the brunt of voter anger.”

The poll found 72 percent of respondents did not support Musharraf’s decision in March to suspend Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom the government claimed abused his office to get a lucrative job for his son and benefits for himself.

Many suspect Musharraf sought to sideline the independent-minded Chaudhry in case of legal challenges to his re-election bid. The case against the judge was quashed.

Musharraf’s approval rating those respondents who thought he was doing a good job slipped to 34 percent in June from 54 percent in February, the poll said. His disapproval rate rose to 49 percent in June from 26 percent in February.

One-third of respondents said they supported him being re-elected, down from half in February. Opposition to his re-election rose to 64 percent in June from 40 percent in February.

On Wednesday, a news report quoted Musharraf as saying he accepted the ruling that reversed Chaudhry’s suspension, and that he wants “harmonious ties” with the reinstated judge.

Musharraf on Wednesday accepted the resignation of Attorney General Makhdoom Ali Khan for his role in preparing the government’s claims against Chaudhry, an official statement said. Retired judge Abdul Qayyum was appointed as Khan replacement.

Meanwhile, Brussels-based think tank the International Crisis Group said in its latest report on Pakistan that the end of Musharraf’s military regime was “a matter of time,” but that he showed a dangerous determination to cling to power at all costs.

“The choice this election year is stark,” said Bob Templer, the group’s Asia director. “Support for a return to genuine democracy and civilian rule, which offers the prospect of containing extremism, or continued support of a slide into a failing state that will export Islamic radicalism domestically, regionally and beyond,” he said in a statement.

If Musharraf tries to rig the elections or proclaims emergency rule it could lead to street demonstrations and violent clashes with the military, the report warned.

Politically weakened, Musharraf has been courting exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Officials say the two held secret talks in Abu Dhabi last week about a possible power-sharing deal.

Bhutto has publicly demanded Musharraf quit the military, the bedrock of his power, if he is to continue to rule. Musharraf has been reluctant to shed his uniform.

Support for Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan’s largest opposition party, rose in the poll, with 54 percent of respondents favoring her as the best leader, compared to 34 percent for Musharraf.

Another exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, also gained in popularity, though he trails in third place.

In the poll, 56 percent of respondents said they did not feel more secure this year than last year. Sixty-three percent agreed when asked if religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan.

The poll was conducted just before the army stormed the Red Mosque, leaving 102 people dead after a weeklong siege. Tensions rose before the siege as the mosque’s Islamist clerics spearheaded a Taliban-like anti-vice campaign in Islamabad, and the poll found 71 percent of respondents were worried about the issue.


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