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Bhutto Elected Pakistan's Premier, Says She Hopes to End Isolation

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 20, 1993

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, OCT. 19 -- Benazir Bhutto was elected Pakistan's prime minister today after a three-year struggle to return to power as head of one of the world's most conservative Muslim nations.

Bhutto, who gained international fame as the first woman to lead an Islamic country when she won her first campaign for prime minister five years ago, today reclaimed stewardship of a country ravaged by political and economic turmoil at home and ostracized internationally over questions of nuclear weapons, terrorism and drug trafficking.

The 40-year-old leader of the Pakistan People's Party won a 121 to 72 vote in the National Assembly over Pakistan Muslim League rival Nawaz Sharif, 44, capping a political showdown after neither party had won a majority of parliamentary seats in national elections two weeks ago.

In her acceptance speech, Bhutto acknowledged the formidable task she faces in her four-year term in leading a country beset by serious problems at home and abroad and described her tenure as "a moment for rehabilitating and stabilizing democracy."

She said she hoped to "bring Pakistan out of its international isolation," and she later told reporters she would place high priority on improving the country's beleaguered relationship with the United States, Pakistan's closest political and military ally when it served as a covert conduit for U.S. aid to Afghan "freedom fighters" battling a Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In recent years, the U.S. Congress has expressed growing concern over Pakistan's nuclear program, and the U.S. military considers the volatile relations between Pakistan and neighboring India one of the world's most likely trouble spots for the outbreak of nuclear war. This year, relations deteriorated further when the United States threatened to classify Pakistan a terrorist state because of its aid to militants fighting across its border in Indian Kashmir.

It is against that backdrop that Bhutto, who was educated at Harvard and Oxford and who courted the West during her first term in office, returns to power. She entered her first term as one of the youngest and most glamorous heads of government in the world. The aura that surrounded her was magnified because she was the first woman ever elected to head the government of an Islamic state.

Within Pakistan, she carried on the legacy of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, one of the country's most popular leaders before he was overthrown in a military coup in 1977 and executed in 1979.

She was thrown out of office in 1990 after 20 months, accused of corruption. Bhutto claimed she was expelled for political reasons, then charged that she lost a 1990 campaign to Sharif because the election was rigged.

Even though Bhutto's and Sharif's parties had only a thin margin separating them in the national elections, the results of the past two weeks of lobbying independent and minority members was reflected on the faces of the two candidates as they walked into the chamber this morning. Bhutto strode in to cheers from the galleries and smiled broadly as she made her way to her seat. Sharif appeared grim-faced as he slid into his seat.

In a concession speech that many Assembly observers said was one of the best of his career, Sharif said he would not disrupt Bhutto's efforts to organize her government and said, "We do not wish to push the country into darkness."

Bhutto, with a slight edge in the national polls, was pushed into power with the help of the sizable block of independent and minority parliament members who, in recent days, began joining her ranks in increasing numbers. When the decisive final vote was announced, the National Assembly exploded in cheers, applause and loud thumping as her allies pounded their desktops in support.

Bhutto was sworn in as prime minister in a simple ceremony in the lavish presidential house here, taking the oath of office in Urdu. Watching were her mother and husband, both of whom won seats in the National Assembly, as well as her 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. Her 10-month-old daughter was not present.

Many political observers here question whether Bhutto will be able to maintain the strong support she found in the National Assembly today. Both she and Sharif have been criticized for lackluster terms of office, which are better remembered for scandals and corruption than for beneficial policies.

Sharif was dismissed for corruption earlier this year, reinstated by the Supreme Court and later resigned under pressure from army and political leaders as the country began sinking into a political quagmire brought on by warring factions. But, after four prime ministers this year, Pakistani officials and political observers say failure of Bhutto's government would be devastating for the struggling democracy.

"Both of them have done so badly in the past, it will be very difficult for them to do worse now," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times newsweekly. Sethi said if Bhutto's government fails, "everyone knows there will be no new elections. The army will take over."

The army has controlled Pakistan under martial law for more than half of the country's 46 years of independence and remains a key player in any elected government. This year, however, the army has been credited as instrumental in ensuring the fairness of the national elections.

Special correspondent Kamran Khan contributed to this report.

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© 1993 The Washington Post Company