Lahore, Feb.3 : The U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) has been stopped from performing exit polls on the forthcoming February 18 general elections in Pakistan.
The caretaker government in Pakistan has also refused to issue new visas to the institute's two top in-country officials.
According to the Chicago Tribune website, critics of the government said it has taken these actions after the IRI said in a recent survey that President Pervez Musharraf's popularity had fallen sharply.
According to an IRI poll in September 2006, Musharraf had a 63 percent approval rating. But last October 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 on December 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.
According to the Daily Times, authorities in Islamabad have told two American citizens responsible for IRI public-opinion polls that they will have to leave the country within three weeks because their visas will not be renewed.
Robert Varsalone, the country director for the IRI was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as saying that the government had tried to cancel their visas last month, but had agreed to extend the period of validity by a month following diplomatic pressure.
"We've been told essentially, this is it for you. We always tried to be honest brokers of information," said Varsalone, who has been in Pakistan for more than a year. Stephen Cima, another IRI official, has been in the country for two-and-a-half years, and the institute has worked in Pakistan for five years.
The institute, which is headed by Republican presidential frontrunner Senator John McCain, has also reversed a decision to send election observers for the February 18 vote because of fears that the increasingly volatile situation would prevent them from accurately gauging the elections.
It was the only US group planning to send observers, although European teams still plan to be in place.
"The main purpose of IRI was to monitor the election process," the Daily Times quoted Obaidullah Farooq Malik, a visa officer in the Interior Ministry, as saying.
qbal Haider, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, criticising the government decision, said: "Without a shadow of a doubt. Musharraf is behaving, I keep saying, like a bull in a china shop."
As of now, 60 observers from the European Union have been deployed in Pakistan, although 40 more may be sent. The US is trying to find another observer team that will substitute for IRI, the Chicago Tribune website claimed in its report.
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 and former US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer.