Bhutto and Sharif are chastened by poll: Rival party leaders woo MPs in a desperate attempt to build enough support to form a government

BENAZIR BHUTTO'S Pakistan People's Party emerged as the largest party in the Wednesday National Assembly elections, but she failed to win a majority.

'We are the single largest party in Pakistan. With our allies we shall form the government,' said Ms Bhutto, who flew from Larkana, her ancestral village, to Lahore last night aboard a small private aircraft. Ms Bhutto, who walked slowly and appeared weary, dodged questions that she might be pregnant.

The PPP collected 86 out of 217 National Assembly seats. Ms Bhutto's nearest rival was the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, with 76 seats. A conservative, Mr Sharif swept the capital, Islamabad, and the biggest Punjab cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi.

Ms Bhutto needs to gain 51 per cent of the parliamentary seats by rallying to her side the newly-elected independents, the smaller regional and religious parties, the tribal chieftains and assemblymen from the Christian and other religious minorities. Ms Bhutto said she wants the National Assembly to convene on Sunday, a day after the state elections.

Mr Sharif, however, refused to concede defeat. Both he and Ms Bhutto spent yesterday frantically trying to line up backers for a rival coalition. Mr Sharif, fearing that the communications lines in his large Lahore family compound were tapped, left home for several hours to conduct his deal-making from a safe telephone. In past Pakistani elections, the last-minute loyalty of assemblymen was often secured with the promise of land plots, choice government jobs, favours or money. One political commentator in Lahore remarked: 'These much-courted assemblymen can demand anything they want now - anything - and they'll get it.'

It is likely that Ms Bhutto, once again, will be prime minister. But since her PPP government must rely on support from a dozen parties, some with conflicting ideologies and regional interests, as well as from several strong-willed tribal chieftains, she may be so taxed by having to keep together an unruly alliance that she cannot begin to cure Pakistan's many social and economic woes.

The caretaker Prime Minister, Moeen Qureshi, a former World Bank vice-president, has set in motion a series of austerity measures that, while necessary to cut spending and inflation, may rebound on Ms Bhutto.

Ms Bhutto's party obtained most of its seats from Sind, her native southern state, and from rural Punjabis. Although the PPP likes to project itself as the voice of the downtrodden labourer, many of its winning candidates were feudal landlords whose relationship with their peasant farmers is unreformed.

The elections were a sobering lesson for both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif. Although the 40 per cent voter turn-out was high, considering that the third-largest party, the Muhajir Quami Movement, boycotted the polls, many of the older, seasoned politicians lost. Often corrupt and haughty, they had come to regard their seat as a birthright. Several former ministers from both parties were discarded by voters.

Ms Bhutto survived an initial scare that her younger brother, Murtaza - exiled in Damascus on terrorism charges - would return to contest elections and possibly take over the PPP. But Murtaza, fearing arrest, stayed away, and he lost the Sind national assembly seats for which he had been campaigning through recorded videos and cassette tapes.

The main religious extremist party, the Pakistan Islamic Front, led by a theologian, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, failed to make any gains. It collected three seats, as in 1990. After the harsh Islamic dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq through the 1980s, many Pakistanis found the PIF's brand of religious radicalism unpalatable.

Although some complaints surfaced of voting irregularities, the leading candidates admitted that the results were mainly fair and impartial. More than 150,000 soldiers guarded polling stations around the country to prevent flare-ups of political violence. The troops - and Pakistani voters - will return to the polls on 9 October for state assembly elections.

(Photograph omitted)