Whoops of triumph as Bhutto wins power

BENAZIR BHUTTO, after being ousted from power more than three years ago, finessed a remarkable comeback yesterday to become Prime Minister of Pakistan for a second time. Ms Bhutto, 40, crushed her rival, Nawaz Sharif, in a decisive National Assembly vote and was sworn in yesterday afternoon in Islamabad.

Although Ms Bhutto was favoured to win, her victory remained in doubt until yesterday's final count. Neither her Pakistan Peoples' Party nor Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League gained a majority in the 6 October elections. But Ms Bhutto, indulging in what Mr Sharif sourly described as 'horse-trading', was able yesterday to gather votes from the smaller parties and the independents.

In a short speech, interrupted by the staccato of her assembly admirers banging on their desks and whooping, Ms Bhutto vowed to lead Pakistan out of 'its international isolation and severe economic problems'. She also thanked the outgoing caretaker prime minister, Moeen Qureshi, to whom she owes her triumph. He staged Pakistan's cleanest elections in two decades. A former World Bank vice-president who usually resides in the US, Mr Qureshi flies out of Islamabad today to rejoin his American family.

Wearing a long white shawl covering her head in Muslim tradition, Ms Bhutto was sworn in at the presidential palace in front of the army generals who have played such a powerful role since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. Despite her ill-concealed loathing of Mr Sharif - who had hounded Ms Bhutto pitilessly when he was elected prime minister after her downfall - she vowed to maintain good relations between her coalition government and Mr Sharif's opposition party.

But Ms Bhutto's first move on taking office was not to celebrate but to humiliate Mr Sharif even more. She flew to Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province, after the swearing-in ceremony to lure local assemblymen away from Mr Sharif, seeking thereby to deprive her enemy of his one provincial stronghold.

She already has the assembly in her native province of Sindh behind her, as well as the local government in the key province of Punjab, where her nominees for speaker and deputy speaker were elected yesterday. If she steals the Frontier Province from Mr Sharif, Ms Bhutto will have one of the strongest democratically-elected governments since Pakistan's independence.

Once she has Mr Sharif under control, Ms Bhutto's next step will be to reform Pakistan's image as a shady outcast. The US was threatening to put Pakistan on its terrorist list. Pakistan was accused of supporting Islamic terrorists, including Kashmiris fighting in neighbouring India, of failing to halt a growing heroin trade and of secretly building a nuclear arsenal.

Ms Bhutto may never get a chance as good as this one to impress her queenly ambitions on Pakistan. Unlike her first win in 1988, this time she has the army on her side. If her party does manage to control the Punjab, Sindh and North-West Frontier governments, she will be in an unassailable position. But as one diplomat cautioned, 'political alliances shift often in Pakistan. If Ms Bhutto tries to impose herself like a headmistress rather than paying attention to the diverse regional and ethnic demands, she won't last long.'

Ms Bhutto steps into an ugly fight between Pakistan and India. It erupted after New Delhi accused Islamabad of being directly involved in the capture of a holy shrine last Friday by armed Kashmiri militants in the north-western Indian state. India expelled four Pakistani diplomats from New Delhi on Monday, and Pakistan retaliated by doing the same in Karachi and Islamabad. Since Partition in 1947, India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over Kashmir.

(Photograph omitted)

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