A new poll released ahead of next Monday's parliamentary elections in Pakistan shows a sharp drop in the popularity of President Pervez Musharraf, and a steep rise in support for opposition parties. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, that could spell trouble for the president's party.

The poll, conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, shows President Musharraf with an approval rating of only 15 percent, half of what it was in November. Three-quarters of those polled think he should resign.

The poll also shows a sharp rise in the popularity of opposition parties, and especially for the Pakistan Peoples Party of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in December.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that if the poll is correct, and if the elections are free and fair, Ms. Bhutto's party may emerge as the strongest party, even if it does not win an outright majority.

"The poll very clearly indicates that Musharraf's party, the PML-Q, is deeply unpopular, or more unpopular than it has been in quite some time, and Benazir Bhutto's former party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, is surging, and we're likely to see both of those things play out, which should allow the Pakistan Peoples Party, at least when it comes to national level politics at the center in Islamabad, should put them in a pole [favorable] position when it comes to choosing a prime minister and forming a government," said Markey.

But that assumes that elections will be free and fair. Opposition parties, including the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, have accused the government of laying the groundwork for a rigged election. The institute's poll shows the Pakistani public overwhelmingly shares that fear. Seventy-nine percent of respondents say that if the party of President Musharraf, the PML-Q, wins the most seats, they will believe that the election has been rigged.

Polls have proved to be wrong at times, as pre-election polls in recent preliminary contests in the U.S. presidential race showed. But Scott Mastic, deputy director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute, says his organization is confident in its findings.

"Turnout and the safety with which those elections are held all are things that are ultimately going to impact on the outcome of the election," he said. "Based on the polling we've done to date, though, we are reasonably confident in the results of this poll as being an accurate measure of where the Pakistani population stands at this time."

The poll also shows that 89 percent of those surveyed feel that Pakistan should not support the United States in its war on terror. Daniel Markey says that even though many Pakistanis have been victims of terrorism, they believe the Musharraf government's cooperation with the United States is the reason.

"The level of suicide attacks and other violence towards the state but with significant collateral damage or regular Pakistani citizens suffering is unprecedented in Pakistani history. And so for the average Pakistani, they connect the dots," he said. "They see cooperation with Musharraf and the United States as having led inevitably to more violence in their daily lives, and they would like it to stop. And so the natural response is that cooperation should be curtailed, and that President Musharraf should go."

If the main opposition parties win enough seats and can put together a coalition of a two-thirds majority, that could spell President Musharraf's political end because they would have enough votes to impeach him. But analysts point out that the two parties' history of deep animosity towards each other could make any political cooperation between them short-lived and keep Musharraf in office, at least for a while.