Pak govt stops IRI from conducting exit polls

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Islamabad, Feb 3 (UNI) Pakistan government has stopped the International Republican Institute (IRI) from performing exit polls at the upcoming parliamentary elections, while refusing to issue new visas for the institute's top in-country officials.

The International Republican Institute is funded by the US Congress, and led by Senator and Presidential hopeful John McCain.

The organisation has decided not to send election observers because of fears that the increasingly volatile situation in Pakistan would not allow them to monitor the polls properly, the Daily Times reported today.

According to a report released on Chicago Tribune website yesterday, critics said the government was taking the actions because a recent survey by the institute indicated that President Pervez Musharraf's popularity had fallen sharply.

Pakistan government has told two US citizens responsible for the surveys that they will have to leave the country in three weeks because their visas will not be renewed, Robert Varsalone, country director for IRI, told the Chicago Tribune.

The government tried to have them leave Pakistan in January but later extended their visas for a month due to ''diplomatic pressure.'' ''We've been told essentially, this is it for you,'' said Varsalone, who has been in Pakistan for more than a year.''We always tried to be honest brokers of information.'' However, Pakistan government refused to comment on the issue.

''The main purpose of IRI was to monitor the election process,'' said Obaidullah Farooq Malik, a visa officer in the Interior Ministry. ''When the election is over, the task of IRI will be finalised.'' According to an IRI poll in September 2006, Musharraf had a 63 per cent approval rating. But last October 11, IRI released a poll showing him at 21 per cent. 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 per cent. The Pakistani government was highly critical, and presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said the survey had no validity.

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.

On December 24, the government denied IRI's request to conduct an exit poll. Election Commission officials said 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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