Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party apparently squeaked to a narrow victory in national elections early today, but her slim margin in Parliament suggested months of government instability lie ahead.
Late results in Wednesday's election gave Bhutto's party 80 of the 207 seats being contested, while outgoing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League garnered 66 seats. Neither of the two main parties won an overall majority.
The Harvard-educated Bhutto will be forced into a coalition with a string of independent candidates, defectors from the Muslim League and 10 minority candidates, whose results are counted separately from the Muslim majority, bringing the total in Parliament to 217.
If she succeeds in assembling a coalition, it will return the charismatic Bhutto to the prime minister's job she lost three years ago amid charges of military manipulation and vote rigging.
Bhutto is considered more to the left than Sharif, a Lahore businessman, but she has abandoned her party's traditional socialist platform of state intervention in the economy and said she now favors returning nationalized businesses to the private sector. Bhutto has also called for increased government spending on education and health care, two populist issues.
One of the biggest losers in this year's election was a coalition of religious parties, known as the Pakistan Islamic Front. The front, whose platform is based on giving the country the world's most Islamic government, won only three seats nationwide, far below predictions.
Pakistani political analysts believe the vote also indicates a new political reality in the country. In the past, voters cast ballots either in favor of the People's Party, and the Bhutto family which controlled it, or against the party. But the results from Wednesday's ballot seemed to indicate that Sharif has become a national figure on his own, able to compete without the aid of alliance partners such as the religious parties.
During the last election in 1990, Sharif's alliance won 106 seats, compared with 44 for Bhutto's PPP. The rest were divided among smaller parties and independents.
Voter apathy was apparent in the low turnout figures, especially in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, where a boycott by a small but powerful regional party was observed by the overwhelming majority of voters. The turnout in Karachi was only about 12% of registered voters.
Still, the election was considered the freest since 1970 because the army, the traditional arbiter of politics in Pakistan, remained on the sidelines rather than covertly backing one candidate. It deployed 150,000 troops across the country to preserve the peace and to guard against irregularities at the voting stations.
The election, the third in Pakistan in five years, was prompted by government gridlock brought on by a running dispute between President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and outgoing Prime Minister Sharif, who both resigned in July under a compromise brokered by the military.
In 1990, Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto as prime minister for corruption and mismanagement after she had served just 20 months. While her People's Party controlled the central government, Sharif's coalition controlled the provincial assembly of Punjab, the country's most populous region, and made it difficult for Bhutto to govern.
Bhutto is the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's charismatic first elected prime minister, who was overthrown by the military in 1977 and executed two years later. When she became prime minister in 1988, Bhutto, now 40, was the first woman ever to lead a Muslim country.
Sharif, 44, an industrialist from Punjab, followed Bhutto to the premiership, winning the election in 1990 with broad support from both the army and a coalition that included most of Pakistan's conservative Islamic parties. His government was accused of rampant corruption.
The government crisis was resolved in July by the appointment of a caretaker government headed by Moeen Qureshi, a former official of the World Bank and a longtime resident of the United States.
Qureshi has said he has no political ambitions.
A Glance at Pakistan Election (Southland Edition, A6)
Here is a brief look at Pakistan's election:
* Candidates: Benazir Bhutto, prime minister from 1988-90, favorite over millionaire industrialist Nawaz Sharif, who was prime minister from 1990 to July.
* What's at stake: More than a dozen parties, including Bhutto's liberal Pakistan People's Party and Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League, are vying for the 217 National Assembly seats. If none receives a majority, top vote-getter will try to form a coalition.
* Policies: Bhutto proposes programs to improve education, housing, health care and to provide jobs. Sharif's government sought to assist businesses.