Provincial boost for Bhutto

BENAZIR BHUTTO has strengthened her chances of becoming prime minister of Pakistan. Her Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) may have emerged as the winner in Saturday's provincial assembly elections in Punjab and Sindh, the country's richest and most populous states.

The fight between Ms Bhutto and her conservative rival, Nawaz Sharif, over who will form the next government is so evenly matched that the victor is still unknown. Only after the National Assembly votes on 14 October will a prime minister be named. Ms Bhutto has a strong edge over Mr Sharif.

Not only will the latest victory for Ms Bhutto in the provincial elections boost her status in the prime ministerial stakes; equally important, it will improve her chances of surviving when and if she comes to power. If Punjab and Sindh were pitted against her, Ms Bhutto would find Pakistan ungovernable. The state governments have great autonomy, and Ms Bhutto would find that as prime minister the reach of her authority would end at the city limits of Islamabad, the capital.

In Ms Bhutto's native Sindh, her party took 56 of 100 assembly seats, giving her a clear majority. In Punjab, however, the race is closer. Ms Bhutto's party won only 94 seats out of 240, but she can count on another 18 seats from smaller parties and independents. Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League won 105 seats in Punjab, and he is seeking coalition partners. His candidates won a majority in the Northwest Frontier province. In Baluchistan, the contest is dominated by tribal chieftains and is of less significance than Punjab and Sindh.

This latest win for Ms Bhutto in this highly personalised electoral brawl with Mr Sharif comes after the PPP gained the largest number of seats in Wednesday's general election. Ms Bhutto's party won 86 of the 217 national assembly seats, and she claims that with backing from smaller parties she can form a majority. Mr Sharif collected only 72 seats, but refuses to surrender.

Both Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto exhibited confidence. Mr Sharif wrote a victory speech before the national results were in. Ms Bhutto said yesterday that she would telephone Mr Sharif and ask him to lead the parliamentary opposition - a call likely to infuriate him.

Ms Bhutto, first elected prime minister in 1988 and sacked 20 months later on charges of corruption and misrule that were never proven, said that her surprise victory proved that 'people were fed up with tensions between the centre and the provinces'. During her time as prime minister, Ms Bhutto was harassed and left hamstrung by Mr Sharif's control of Punjab.

'In Pakistan, despite the slim parliamentary majority,' said Ms Bhutto in Lahore, 'we can at last have stability and smoothness.'

The PPP's main ally is a renegade faction of the Muslim League led by Hamid Chatta. Ms Bhutto will also win support from regional parties and at least seven MPs who represent religious minorities.