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Pakistani Elections Likely to Return Sharif To Office

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

Nawaz Sharif, forced out as Pakistan's prime minister in 1993 for economic mismanagement and alleged corruption, was poised today to return to office after an election marked by a record low voter turnout.

Preliminary results from Monday's election for the 217-seat parliament showed Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League dominating races across the country, ahead of the Pakistan People's Party of ousted prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The election was ordered after President Farooq Leghari dismissed Bhutto in November for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

Analysts predicted that the final count would leave the Muslim League as the largest party in parliament. It was unclear whether the party would win the parliamentary majority needed to form a government, but analysts said Sharif, a 47-year-old former industrialist, could muster one with support from regional parties and independents if necessary. In addition, winners of 10 seats reserved for religious minorities have traditionally backed the largest party.

Although relatively peaceful, Pakistan's fourth election in eight years did little to strengthen an unsteady democracy that has never seen a prime minister complete a five-year term. Military dictators have ruled Pakistan for nearly half the 50 years since independence from Britain, and the army remains the most stable force in the nation of 130 million.

About 30 percent of Pakistan's 56.5 million voters went to the polls, the smallest percentage in seven national votes since Pakistan's first free election in 1970. The low turnout amounted to a massive expression of dismay with the performance of three governments headed by Bhutto or Sharif since democracy was restored in 1988.

The widespread perception that prime ministers and other elected leaders have used government to enrich themselves has reduced faith in democracy and inspired in many Pakistanis a nostalgic yearning for martial law.

A recent poll conducted for the monthly Herald magazine indicated that 95 percent of respondents considered most of the nation's politicians to be corrupt. A slim majority of 52 percent said martial law harmed the country, while 43 percent said dictatorship brought benefits. Majorities in Pakistan's largest cities, Karachi and Lahore, judged martial law to have been beneficial.

However, Western observers expressed doubt Monday that the nation's military leaders, who have sought international acceptance through heavy Pakistani participation in United Nations peacekeeping efforts, would reclaim direct control of the government. And Leghari, a parliamentary appointee who has wielded his presidential powers with vigor in recent months, told reporters tonight: "I think democracy is here to stay."

Unless his Muslim League captures a sizeable majority, Sharif could be constrained by Leghari's assertiveness and by a newly created advisory council of military and civilian leaders. Tough bargaining by the International Monetary Fund before releasing loan funds could further limit the new government's flexibility to solve Pakistan's serious economic troubles, which include unemployment, inflation, heavy debt, deficit spending and a shortage of foreign currency.

Sharif's likely return to the prime minister's office could also inject uncertainty into Pakistan's relations with the United States. When he served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993, the State Department was upset by his failure to control illegal drug trafficking and terrorist activity based in Pakistan. Pakistan relations by taking stronger measures to curb drug dealing and terrorism.

Pakistanis harbor some fond memories of Sharif, particularly for two pet projects: initiating a multi-lane highway connecting Islamabad to Lahore and subsidizing the purchase of yellow taxicabs by drivers. The return of the former industrialist from Lahore, capital of Punjab province, is likely to restore the confidence of Pakistan's business leaders in a struggling economy.

But Sharif's re-emergence was less a political embrace of him than a rejection of Bhutto, in whom many Pakistanis had placed great hopes as a crusader for democracy.

Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, is the charismatic daughter of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed by a military government in 1979. Like her most recent administration, her first government ended in 1990 on a president's dismissal order.