Pakistan vote: a close but calm race

Breaking with a long history of military control and election violence, Pakistan voted in a calm and free political atmosphere yesterday. Voter turnout was low, especially in rural areas where many lacked the government-required national identity card to vote. At press time Wednesday, no official results had been made public. But unofficial reports from a reliable government source say the race was very close.

Benazir Bhutto, this source said, had swept her home province of Sind. Ms. Bhutto's party, however, faced some powerful establishment politicians allied to her longtime foe, late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Among them was her chief rival, Nawaz Sharif of the Islamic Democratic Alliance, who was said to be taking crucial seats in Punjab Province. Former Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo reportedly lost his election bid.

The small voter turnout could spell trouble for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, which was most likely to be hurt by the last-minute identity-card requirement. Many PPP supporters are poor, illiterate workers and farmers who failed to obtain the cards.

``It looks as if the turnout may be only 35 to 40 percent,'' said an Islamabad-based diplomat who visited 20 polling stations Wednesday. ``That will make it hard for her to get the solid majority she needs.''

Wednesday's vote was only the third general election in Pakistan's 41 years. The election was not marred by widespread violence and rigging as in the past. As voting came to a close in Rawalpindi, parties held rival parades, generally marked by good-natured teasing. Visitors to polling stations found election officials following precise counting procedures.

``The polling is going along safe and sound,'' said Sheikh Mohammed Yaqub, a lawyer at a polling center.

However, by late in the day PPP officials were worried by the low turnout - which they blamed on the identity-card provision. The government said the cards were needed to prevent fraud; PPP officials say the aim was to shut out their backers.

At polling station No. 45 on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, Hasnain Gilani, a poll-watcher for Bhutto's local candidate, watched officials count votes in a locked room after the poll's 5 p.m. closing.

Within 45 minutes, Mr. Gilani discovered that his man, Gen. Tikka Khan, had been trounced by the Islamic Democratic Alliance with a 3-to-2 margin.

He blamed the low turnout. ``Overall, our position is good, but in this station it is bad because we had many illiterate villagers who had no voting cards,'' Gilani said. ``This is [a problem] all over Pakistan.''

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