Pakistan votes old leader in from the cold as sense of futility rules

Early election results in Pakistan indicated that the Muslim League leader Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif would win a popular majority and be able to form a new government as predicted.

Since martial law was lifted a dozen years ago, the seat of power in Islamabad has become a dunking stool, with arch-rivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif toppling in turn. There were plenty of excuses for Pakistanis to stay home from the polls yesterday. But blaming the cold weather or the late nights due to the holy month of Ramadan for the thin turnout, estimated at roughly 28 per cent, did not mask a general sense of futility. Few people seemed to believe that their ballots would make much difference. Before their newly chosen leader's five-year term was up, any choice made by the nation's 56 million potential voters could be ousted again by the President, as Ms Bhutto and her government were dismissed last November, following allegations of widespread corruption.

A bored election worker in mid-town Lahore, waiting with a cluster of soldiers at a grimy polling booth, said: "Everybody is fed up. There could be another election within six months." No one had shown up to cast a ballot there five hours after elections started. Even the erstwhile cricket champion Imran Khan and his wife Jemima could not vote for their fledgling Movement for Justice Party - Mr Khan had registered in a district where his party fielded no candidates.

Ms Bhutto has vowed to challenge any result that goes against her. Forecasts that the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif would win, coupled with despair over charges against her, made her supporters "too disheartened" to show up in force, party workers said. Many Muslim League partisans also stayed home, confident of victory, a spokesman said.

Agitators for the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party drew the most attention in the quiet streets, shouting slogans and leafleting vehicles. They had called for polls to be postponed until after charges were pressed against officials accused by the caretaker government's Accountability Commission.