BENAZIR BHUTTO, Pakistan's former prime minister, is expected to make a political comeback after Wednesday's national elections to the lower house of parliament.
With counting completed in the 211 contested constituencies, in the National Assembly, Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had won 86 while her archrival, Nawaz Sharif, finished with 71.
Political analysts expected Bhutto to form a coalition with smaller parties, which could control a simple majority of as many as 105 seats in a new government. Bhutto's earlier tenure as prime minister ended when her government was sacked on corruption charges in 1989. She came into the spotlight as the world's first woman to lead an Islamic state.
Despite her lead, the result was widely seen as an upset for Bhutto, after her supporters spent several days expecting to win a clean sweep. One of her most devastating defeats came in Lahore - Pakistan's second largest city and Mr. Sharif's hometown, where Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) shut out the PPP, despite earlier projections that Bhutto would take six of the city's nine seats.
Bhutto charged that election fraud was to blame for her unexpectedly narrow victory. ``Thousands of my voters were turned away ... across the country,'' she said. But she was not expected to challenge the results and jeopardize her political comeback.
Another reason for the PPP's marginal showing may have been a low voter turnout across the country because of the public's weariness with the country's tumultuous political process. Fewer than 50 percent of registered voters went to the polls, and in the country's financial capital Karachi, a boycott by militant, ethnically based Mohajir National Movement kept 98 percent of residents from voting.
The next electoral battle between the PPP and the PML is expected on Saturday, when Pakistan's four provinces are due to elect new legislatures.
The results of those elections will be crucial to the stability of a new central government. During her previous administration, Sharif was elected chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, and he defied her government's dictates, forcing then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to sack her only 20 months later.
Sharif's camp remained confident it could build a strong opposition.
This week's elections are the culmination of a continuing political crisis in Pakistan, which began in April when President Khan dissolved Sharif's government on corruption charges. Sharif was restored to office in May in a supreme court decision, which overturned the presidential order.
But the power struggle between the two men continued, and virtually halted the government, as officials were not clear whose orders to heed. In a deal brokered by the Army, both men agreed to resign in July, and allow an interim government to take over and schedule fresh elections.
Although Bhutto has emerged the ultimate victor, she still faces the test of surviving in a coalition and facing a forceful opposition. And she has little chance of succeeding in removing the president's powers to sack elected prime ministers, as Sharif tried to do in April. That move precipitated his power struggle with Khan.
Since 1985 when martial law was lifted, three Prime Ministers have been sacked under those powers, which can only be removed through a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Concerns still run high over the Army's role in the civilian government, in a country that has been ruled by the generals for almost 24 years of its 46-year independent existence. The remaining 22 years have seen 14 Prime Ministers come to office. Most either were made to step down or forced out by the military.
But the Army now has virtually no interest in seizing power, as such a step would bring worldwide condemnation. Despite this year's political crisis, the Army's generals stuck to their promises not to seize power and helped negotiate a political solution.
The Army provided up to 150,000 troops to help conduct Wednesday's vote. ``The struggle is now between politicians. The Army has shown no interest in coming in,'' says an official in Islamabad, the capital, recently.