By Griff Witte and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 11, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 10 -- A week before Pakistanis vote in parliamentary elections, President Pervez Musharraf's popularity has hit an all-time low and opposition parties seem capable of a landslide victory that could jeopardize his efforts to cling to power, according to a poll to be released Monday.
The poll found that just 15 percent of Pakistanis approve of Musharraf's job performance, exactly half the number who expressed approval in November. The two main opposition parties, meanwhile, had the backing of a combined 72 percent of those surveyed.
If Musharraf's allies do not succeed in rigging the election results in their favor, such broad-based support could give the opposition enough seats in the new parliament for the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president.
"If a coalition of revenge gets a two-thirds majority, he's done. Absolutely done," said C. Christine Fair, a senior political analyst at the Rand Corp. research institution.
The poll results are the latest in a series of troubling indicators for Musharraf. In recent months, he has suspended the constitution, fired many judges on the Supreme Court and engineered a legally dubious reelection in his quest to stay in power.
While the constitution has since been restored, Musharraf's repeated crackdowns against political opponents, the judiciary and the mass media have turned the public adamantly against him. A year ago, most Pakistanis supported him. Now, three-quarters say they want him to resign.
"I don't know if his numbers could go any lower," said Robert Varsalone, country director for the International Republican Institute, the nonprofit, U.S.-based organization that conducted the poll. "He's probably at his floor."
Varsalone and another staffer for the institute, which includes prominent Republicans on its board, were forced to leave Pakistan last week after the government failed to renew their visas. The group has released a series of polls charting Musharraf's decline and has come under intense government pressure as a result.
The poll of 3,845 adults was conducted Jan. 19-29 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.69 percentage points.
There are widespread fears in Pakistan that Musharraf and his allies will rig next Monday's vote. But the institute's poll indicated that that could be a perilous step. A majority of those surveyed said they would back protests against the government if Musharraf's party is announced as the winner. Only 14 percent said they planned to vote for the main pro-Musharraf party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
Party spokesman Tariq Azim Khan conceded that it may lose seats next Monday but said Musharraf's allies would reap the benefits of incumbency and predicted that the PML-Q "will still be the single largest party" after the elections.
The institute's poll strongly indicates otherwise. The Pakistan People's Party, long led by Benazir Bhutto, appears to have gained substantial support since the former prime minister was assassinated in December. Half of those surveyed said they planned to vote for the PPP, with the next highest total, 22 percent, going to an opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Such support could give the PPP and Sharif a powerful coalition, should they choose to work together against a president both have often condemned.
The institute's poll calls into question the belief of U.S. officials that the elections will produce a hung parliament, with power divided among the three major parties as well as a handful of smaller ethnic and religious parties. In an interview Friday, a senior U.S. intelligence official predicted that no two opposition parties would get the 66 percent necessary to impeach Musharraf or change the constitution.
Musharraf remains "very strong" and the "key political figure" in Pakistan, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The United States has steadfastly backed Musharraf over the past year, even as many Pakistanis have begun to look beyond him.
"Even before Benazir's assassination there was a strong and growing feeling that Musharraf had run his course," said Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. "People are generally fed up with him and with the state Pakistan is in right now."
In addition to his heavy-handed tactics, Musharraf has been hurt by rising inflation, electricity shortages and surging violence among Islamic extremists.
Musharraf is not the only one whose popularity has been damaged: Support in Pakistan for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has fallen from 46 percent in August to 24 percent now, according to a separate poll released Sunday.
The survey, conducted by the U.S.-based nonprofit group Terror Free Tomorrow, found that the Taliban has experienced a similar drop, with support at 19 percent, half of what it was last summer.
Islamic extremists have dramatically escalated their campaign of terrorism over the past six months, and there are deep concerns in Pakistan that the violence could worsen ahead of next week's vote.
Wright reported from Washington.