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Bhutto's comeback fails as voters in Pakistan hand victory to rival

Benazir Bhutto, ousted as prime minister of Pakistan on charges of mass corruption nearly three months ago, failed in her re-election bid yesterday, according to preliminary results compiled by her party and the apparent winner. An estimated turnout of 25 per cent revealed a lack of support for any of the candidates and voter disgust over the state of their democracy.

By last night, only one official national result had been announced. The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League took the only National Assembly seat allotted to Islamabad, the capital.

Mr Sharif was ebullient, telling supporters in Lahore he would win a majority in the 217-seat National Assembly and form a government on his own.

Since martial law was lifted a dozen years ago, the seat of power in Islamabad has become a dunking stool, with arch-rivals Ms Bhutto and Mr 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 did not disguise a general sense of futility. Few people believe their ballots will make much difference. Any choice made by the nation's 56 million potential voters could be ousted again by the President, just as Ms Bhutto and her government were dismissed last November. A bored election worker in mid-town Lahore 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 as 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 Mr Sharif would win 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.