Pakistan: the challenges ahead. Pakistan's leaders are wrangling over who will head a new government. Though the outcome is unclear, Benazir Bhutto seems the most likely choice. Whoever wins will face a host of domestic and foreign problems.

Pakistan's acting President is trying to persuade the two lead vote-getters in last week's elections to unite in a coalition government. He meets separately today with Benazir Bhutto, whose party won the highest number of seats Nov. 16 but failed to get a majority, and Nawaz Sharif, a provincial chief minister. The one who emerges victorious from the maneuvering achieves the distinction of becoming Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister (head of government) in more than a decade.

But that honor carries with it a legacy of economic problems and political uncertainties: Pakistan is beset with ethnic divisions, a weak economy, a booming illegal trade in weapons and narcotics, and tense relations with its neighbors.

Many analysts predict that Bhutto will eventually become the Islamic world's first woman head of state. But, says Maleha Lohdi, editor of the independent daily The Muslim in Islamabad, ``Any prime minister will find the room to maneuver very limited. There is no clear [voters'] mandate.''

Bhutto had hoped that provincial legislative elections, held three days after the national election, would secure her claim to power. But her party was edged out in three of four provinces, including Punjab State, home to more half the nation's 110 million people.

And Punjab is the province where Mr. Sharif, Bhutto's rival, is chief minister. He was appointed by late military strongman, Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. As head of the anti-Bhutto coalition, Sharif scored a commanding win in Punjab local elections. Even if that showing does not earn him the prime minister's job, he is likely to remain a thorn in the side of a Bhutto government. ``With the government of the largest and wealthiest province in opposition, there could really be a lot of sparks,'' observers a Western diplomat here.

Many Pakistanis welcome a strong parliamentary opposition. They are weary of the excesses of one-man rule under Zia, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash Aug. 17. But there are also many Pakistanis who are wary of Bhutto, believing she has built up her political career on the memory of her father, the former prime minister who was overthrown and executed by Zia. These Pakistanis say Bhutto might revive the high-handed, sometime ruthless, rule of her father.

``This will be the first democratic regime in 11 years,'' says Mohammad Sharif, a businessman. ``We need a fine, strong opposition to make sure it remains that way.''

Bhutto is unlikely to make waves if she comes to power. Her party's platform was similar to that of the rival Islamic Democratic Alliance, and her views are more centrist than those of her left-wing father.

``She will never acknowledge it publicly, but she has learned from her father's mistakes,'' says Mr. Lohdi, the newspaper editor who is close to Bhutto.

Bhutto's pledges to continue Zia's support for the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan and also to maintain defense spending have brought her the Army's grudging acquiescense.

``So far the military has appeared committed to letting the democratic experiment go ahead,'' says a Western diplomat here. ``It's equally clear that if things go wrong, they feel they have the right to step in. The civilian government will have about a year to prove itself.''

Bhutto's age (35) and lack of government experience have also raised doubts. She has also not detailed plans for a new government. Diplomats complain that they do not know who will comprise her Cabinet. Advisers say she is consumed with getting into power and, remaining skeptical of her chances, has failed to draw up a blueprint for governing.

That makes American officials, who have long encouraged Pakistan's moves toward representative government, uneasy. The United States has high stakes in Pakistan, a key ally on the borders of the Soviet Union and the recipient of billions of dollars of aid. The US will be seeking reassurances on continued support for the Afghan mujahideen and the peaceful intentions of Pakistan's nuclear program, the greatest source of friction.

With serious problems internally and along its borders, Pakistan cannot afford to drift, analysts say. The presence of 3 million Afghan refugees created economic pressures. US officials are keenly watching election changes in the Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. The provincial election defeat of Fazle Haq, the chief minister and a Zia crony, could affect the Afghan refugees' future and the US-sponsored crackdown on the area's brisk heroin trade.

Relations between the central government and the provinces remain strained by bitter disputes over water and electricity distribution.

But Pakistan's strained relations with longtime foe India are in a holding pattern. India, which has loudly criticized Pakistan's military regime, is likely to welcome a Bhutto government.

And although Pakistan's economy continues to expand, its fast-growing population, widening budget deficit, and weak tax system, pose grave problems. Indeed, dissatisfaction with tough economic measures could force the new government to call fresh elections within two to three years, observers say.

``Afghanistan, India, and the economy are all very fragile issues,'' says Ijaz Gilani, chairman of Gallup Pakistan, a polling and research unit. ``Whoever comprises the civilian government has the tremendous task of not creating splits in the country.''

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