Pakistan bans U.S. pollsters
Chicago Tribune
By Kim Barker, Tribune foreign correspondent

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A U.S. democracy-building institute funded by Congress says it is being pushed out of Pakistan by President Pervez Musharraf’s government, which is refusing to issue new visas for the institute’s top in-country officials or allow the group to perform exit polls at upcoming parliamentary elections.

Critics say the government is taking the actions because a recent International Republican Institute survey indicates that the popularity of Musharraf, who enjoys U.S. support as an ally in the war on terrorism, has fallen sharply.

The institute, headed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also has reversed a decision to send election observers for the Feb. 18 vote because of fears that the increasingly volatile situation would prevent them from accurately gauging the elections. It was the only U.S. group planning to send observers, although European teams still plan to be in place.

The Pakistani government has told the two U.S. citizens responsible for IRI public-opinion polls that they will have to leave the country in three weeks because their visas will not be renewed, said Robert Varsalone, the country director for IRI. The government tried to end their visas in January but extended them a month after coming under diplomatic pressure.

“We’ve been told essentially, this is it for you,” said Varsalone, who has been in Pakistan more than a year. “We always tried to be honest brokers of information.”

The other IRI official, Stephen Cima, has been in the country for 2 1/2 years, and the institute has worked in Pakistan for five years.

The IRI, launched by Congress in 1983, is officially non-partisan and works in 70 countries. Its board of directors has several high-profile Republicans, including former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer and former Illinois GOP Chairman Richard Williamson, who President Bush named special envoy to Sudan.

No straight answer
Several Pakistani officials refused requests for comment about the IRI visas or said they were not responsible for the decision.

“The main purpose of IRI was to monitor the election process,” said Obaidullah Farooq Malik, a visa officer in the Interior Ministry, adding that he did not make the decision about Varsalone and Cima. “When the election is over, the task of IRI will be finalized.”

Varsalone said he did not want to speculate on what might happen in the elections or why IRI is having visa trouble, but Pakistani political analysts and human-rights activists said they believed the group’s visa troubles are a result of IRI’s increasingly critical polls.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” said Iqbal Haider, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “Musharraf is behaving, I keep saying, like a bull in a china shop.”

During a December visit, a U.S. congressional delegation asked Musharraf about IRI and the alleged government pressure on the institute.

“Personally I think it’s a form of intimidation by people who want to be in charge,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was part of the delegation. “I don’t say the Pakistan president, but I say people who want to please” him.

The IRI’s polls are considered to be the most accurate and frequent barometer of Pakistani opinion.

If the group’s troubles are part of a decision to remove it from the country, it would be yet another move by the Pakistani government to crush any potential criticism or bad publicity for Musharraf.

When Musharraf declared a state of emergency for six weeks last fall, the government banned private television stations, allowing them back on the air only if they promised to follow government rules. His government fired most of the country’s top judges and locked up opposition members.

As of now, 60 observers from the European Union have been deployed in Pakistan, although 40 more may be sent. The U.S. is trying to find another observer team that will substitute for IRI.

Tracking the discontent
The IRI polls have chronicled the rising discontent of many Pakistanis. In September 2006, Musharraf had a 63 percent approval rating. But last Oct. 11, IRI released a poll showing him at 21 percent.

Thirteen days later, the first official letter arrived, telling IRI that it was not possible to register the group in Pakistan “due to administrative reasons.”

Another poll was released Dec. 13, showing that Musharraf’s popularity had slightly rebounded, to 30 percent. The Pakistani government was highly critical, and presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said the survey had no validity.

On Dec. 24, the government denied IRI’s request to conduct an exit poll, widely considered a tool to help safeguard against voter fraud.

Election commission officials said that exit polls are not allowed in Pakistan because they are not mentioned in the country’s constitution. Kanwar Dilshad, the commission spokesman, said there would be no fraud in the elections and an exit poll could be confusing.

“Maybe the result of the exit poll would be different from the actual result,” he said.

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