Bhutto routed as cynical Pakistanis turn to Sharif

Thousands of Pakistan Muslim League supporters started setting off firecrackers and firing off celebratory gun shots as soon as the polling booths closed, but even they seemed stunned by the size of their winning margin when the final election tally came in yesterday.

The wealthy industrialist Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif looked poised to resume as Prime Minister if the government wins a vote of confidence in 10 days. He secured a two-thirds majority with 127 seats, trouncing the former premier Benazir Bhutto whose Pakistan People's Party came up with a paltry 15 seats.

"We are the clear winners and our party is in power," Mr Sharif rasped, his voice hoarse from the campaign. "Elections were categorically fair and free. We did expect a comfortable majority. I have no doubt that we can last out our tenure."

Mr Sharif promises to overhaul Pakistan's political system as well as its ruined economy, which suffered from runaway inflation and unprecedented deficits before Ms Bhutto's latest term was cut short by two years. His priorities also extend to maintaining law and order, which seriously declined during a spree of killings and custodial deaths under Ms Bhutto.

No alliances are necessary for Mr Sharif to form a government, and he has pledged to avoid the rancour that marred his relations with Ms Bhutto in the past. Mr Sharif was groomed by General Zia ul Haq, who ordered the hanging of Ms Bhutto's father, Zufilkar Ali Bhutto, 20 years ago.

Turn-out in the major cities was dismal on Monday, barely touching 26 per cent, according to the President, Farooq Leghari. But after tallying the votes of the tribal groups in the north - who were enthusiastic about voting for the first time - and in rural Punjab, it rose to 34 per cent. Ms Bhutto was expected to seize on this and brand the election fraudulent. She did accuse the Muslim League of adding votes, but she seemed resigned to defeat. Both she and her mother won their seats and will lead the opposition. "The country needs stability for economic improvement," Ms Bhutto said. "We will not launch an agitation against this engineered result." Independent foreign officials who monitored the polls reported no major discrepancies.

The former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, feared as an unpredictable third force, failed to win a single seat. However, he did out-poll Musarrat Shaheen, an outsized soft-porn actress who was also relying on her celebrity to attract attention.

Mr Khan's Tehreek-i-Insaaf Party, launched last April, introduced a moral crusade to the election but was viewed as naive.

Cynical voters appear to have cast against Ms Bhutto rather than for her rival. To balance out a powerful president, most seem to prefer a professional politician like Mr Sharif who has a track record of cutting backroom deals and doling out favours.