Bhutto faces battle to woo weary voters: Victory is far from certain in today's Pakistan election

IT WAS five minutes to midnight, and Benazir Bhutto, notoriously unpunctual, had failed to appear. Fifteen thousand supporters of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) jammed into Lahore's Mochi Gate for the last rally before today's elections.

The campaign was due to stop at the stroke of midnight, and the crowd of flag-waving, singing followers, deprived of 'Bibi', whipped themselves into a frenzy by parading a huge canvas of a buxom cavewoman astride a dead tiger.

The tiger is the symbol of Ms Bhutto's rival, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif. Nobody seemed to mind that the picture of the barbarian woman, clad in the fur of a very small animal, was more appropriate for the record cover of a heavy metal band than for the poster of a timidly attired Muslim mother of three who wants desperately to be Pakistan's next prime minister.

Finally, three minutes before 12, Ms Bhutto's campaign jeep ploughed through the crowd and Ms Bhutto was squeezed up the stairway to the open stage. 'We drove like in a James Bond film,' she rasped. Her voice was painful as a wound from the long, exhausting campaign, which began last July when the army forced Mr Sharif's resignation as prime minister. She did not have the time to say much, but she didn't have to. 'We shall defeat the tiger once and for all]' she shreiked.

Ms Bhutto's victory, however, is not certain. More than 50 million voters in this Muslim nation are trudging to the polls for the third time in five years. More than 70 parties are contesting the 217 national assembly seats and provincial assembly seats. But from the start, the election has been a straight battle between the PPP and the PML. The trouble is, many Pakistanis are rather weary of both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif and in an unpredictable mood.

The PPP will sweep Ms Bhutto's native Sindh, especially since Mr Sharif's allies in this southern state - the Muhajir Quami Movement of Indian Muslim refugees - are boycotting the elections. But in Punjab, which sends 115 assemblymen to the country's parliamentary body, the battle is more evenly matched. Najan Sethi, editor of the Friday Times, said: 'There seems to be a last-minute swing towards Nawaz Sharif in the Punjab.'

Regionalism is a strong, divisive force in Pakistan, and the Punjabis distrust the Sindhis. Mr Sharif is a Punjabi, a wealthy industrialist whose support lies among the nation's conservative shopkeepers and rising middle classes. If Ms Bhutto wins 30-35 national assembly seats in Sindh, as forecast, then Mr Sharif will need at least 70 seats from Punjab to beat her nationwide. Mr Sharif collected 92 Punjab seats in the 1990 elections, but those polls were allegedly rigged. This time, all the main parties agree that the voting looks fair. More than 100,000 soldiers will be guarding the polling stations to prevent the bullying of voters, and the caretaker government has proven its impartiality.

The rise of the Islamic fundamentalist parties is another imponderable. The Pakistan Islamic Front is expected to crumble some of Mr Sharif's backing among the urban, lower-middle classes.