Pakistan down to election wire. Benazir Bhutto battles for victory in a key political test

Showered with rose petals, the mob surging to touch her, Benazir Bhutto inched toward the podium behind a phalanx of security guards. ``Benazir, Benazir,'' the chant rose as she emerged, waving and smiling, at the microphone. As the cheers died down, Ms. Bhutto launched forcefully into a speech that tens of thousands in this bustling farming community had waited five hours to hear.

Since returning from self-imposed exile more than two years ago, Bhutto, the daughter and political heir of the late prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, has proved, time and again, her ability to draw crowds.

Now, with Pakistan facing most likely its freest vote in 11 years, the 35-year-old Bhutto is counting on mass appeal to carry her to the prime ministership.

The Nov. 16 legislative election is a crucial test for her and for Pakistan, where years of military rule have stifled moves toward democracy. This largely Muslim nation of 110 million, viewed as a front-line state against Soviet encroachment, has been a key US ally.

As the country's most prominent opposition leader, Bhutto is positioned to shape the future of a nation ravaged by ethnic strife, drug- and gun-running, and war spilling across the borders from neighboring Afghanistan. As a woman, she is challenging longstanding traditions of a male-dominated Muslim society.

Although widely considered the frontrunner, Bhutto faces a close contest that could deny her a majority of the 207 National Assembly seats and force her into coalition-building. Bickering among her own Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its allies could make that difficult.

In addition, a requirement that all voters carry national identity cards could damage Bhutto's bid. Overturning the decision of a lower court, the Supreme Court Saturday ordered that Pakistani voters must show identification cards before casting ballots. Bhutto's PPP claims that many of Pakistan's 48 million eligible voters - particularly among her favored constituencies of peasants, rural laborers, and women - do not have such cards. Some observers predict Bhutto's party could lose up to 20 assembly seats in Punjab due to the measure.

``Of the people who will not be able to vote, the majority of them are PPP supporters. This is a serious setback for Benazir,'' says political analyst I.A. Rehman. ``But she still could overcome this and surprise everyone.''

And buoyed by Bhutto's popularity, her PPP has a strong chance of outpolling the Islamic Democratic Alliance, an unlikely nine-party coalition with one goal: stopping Benazir.

Arrayed against Bhutto are influential cronies of late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew and executed her father and was himself killed in a mysterious airplane crash in August. Her foes also include former prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a one-time PPP lieutenant, and Muslim fundamentalists opposed to having a woman in power.

``There are a number of individuals who are enemies of the masses, and they are our enemies, too,'' Bhutto stormed from the Sargodha platform.

Both during and after the election, Bhutto will be forced to tread carefully to forge a power base that can survive the minefield of Pakistani politics.

Her rambunctious supporters are being kept on tight rein to prevent any election violence. So far, Pakistan's all powerful military has stayed on the sidelines and acquiesced to party-based elections which Zia had opposed, primarily as a check on Bhutto's PPP.

With the election race into the home stretch, Bhutto has taken her campaign in the heart of Punjab Province, where more than half of Pakistan's people live. Accounting for 115 of the assembly seats, Punjab has dominated the military, civil service, and the economy since 1947.

The candidates have been putting in grueling days, since they are banned from campaigning from television and radio. One recent day, Bhutto sped through fertile farmlands, making seven campaign stops in 19 hours.

At every appearance, she attacked the Islamic Democratic Alliance, in particular Nawaz Sharif, a Zia ally and chief minister of Punjab. Mr. Sharif is considered a leading contender for prime minister if the alliance wins.

Despite the election uproar, there is little debate over troubling issues: the weakening economy, growing ethnic tensions, and the presence of millions of refugees from Afghanistan. Every candidate makes vague promises to end poverty, provide jobs, and further ``Islamization,'' a favorite catch phrase of Zia.

Striking a middle-of-the-road stance, Bhutto no longer speaks of land reform and nationalization, hallmarks of her father's socialist-style regime. She supports Pakistan's Afghanistan policy of being tough on the Soviet-backed communist regime. And she courts the United States, which her father once accused of engineering his overthrow.

With Zia's death, Bhutto lost the main issue that obsessed her and her party for years. No longer does she call for retribution against those responsible for her father's death. She has opted for a more conciliatory call to forget the Zia era.

A child of privilege, educated at Harvard and Oxford universities, Bhutto spent months in solitary confinement in 1981 after her brothers were accused of masterminding the hijacking of a Pakistani airliner to Syria. She has chronicled the trials and bitterness of those years in an autobiography due out soon.

Meanwhile, she is contending with fires within her party, where she shows little tolerance of dissent. Critics say her arrogance rivals that of her father and raises fears that, if elected, she will rule in the same style. She has has also angered some PPP members by welcoming former Zia allies and defectors from the opposition alliance into the party.

Many of her father's loyalists have also turned against Bhutto. Most notable is Mr. Jatoi, an influential landlord, who is now offering himself as a compromise candidate for prime minister.

Aware of Islamic conservatism, Bhutto has played down her personal life during the campaign, refusing to take pictures with her two-month-old son. She has shared the spotlight with her mother.

Still, the opposition has used Bhutto's motherhood and recent poor health to challenge her ability to run Pakistan.

``As a Muslim, she is not allowed to be prime minister,'' says Khalid Haseeb, an official with the Jamiat-i-Islami party. ``She is sick and has just had a child. How can she provide strong leadership?''

In a reassurance aimed at the country's skeptical military, Bhutto contends her sex is not a roadblock in the path to power. ``As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned there was never an issue of a woman or a man'' she says. ``I am proud of being a woman and a Muslim woman. There are a number of countries under women where there has been a strong military leadership.''

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