Pro-Business Ex-Prime Minister Headed for Victory in Pakistan

By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 4, 1997; 12:00 AM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, FEB. 4 (TUESDAY) -- Nawaz Sharif, who was forced out as Pakistan's prime minister in 1993 by allegations of official corruption and economic mismanagement, was poised today to return to office in elections marked by a record low voter turnout.

Incomplete results from Monday's balloting for seats in the 217-seat parliament showed Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League dominating races across the country, while candidates of the Pakistan People's Party, led by ousted prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were faring poorly. The election was ordered after President Farooq Leghari dismissed Bhutto in November, alleging that her government was corrupt and had abused its power.

With about half the vote counted, the Muslim League had won at least 80 seats and the People's Party just five, leading analysts here to predict that the final count would make Sharfi's party the largest in parliament. Still, it was unclear if the party would win the parliamentary majority needed to form a government, but analysts said Sharif, a 47-year-old former industrialist, could muster one with support from regional parties and independents, if necessary. In addition, winners of 10 seats reserved for religious minorities have traditionally backed the largest party.

Although relatively peaceful, Pakistan's fourth election in eight years did little to strengthen an unsteady democracy that has never seen a prime minister complete a five-year term. Military dictators have ruled Pakistan for nearly half of the 50 years since it gained independence from Britain, and the army remains the most stable force in this nation of 130 million.

About 35 percent of Pakistan's 56.5 million voters went to the polls, the lowest percentage in seven national votes since Pakistan's first free election in 1970. The low turnout amounted to a massive expression of dismay with the performance of three governments headed by Bhutto or Sharif since civilian rule was restored in 1988.

"People are fed up with both major parties," said Hakim Bhatti, an herbal medicine specialist who stayed away from the polls in Rawalpindi.

The widespread perception that prime ministers and other elected leaders have used government to enrich themselves has reduced faith in democracy and inspired in many Pakistanis a nostalgic yearning for martial law.

A recent poll conducted for the monthly Herald magazine indicated that 95 percent of respondents considered most of the nation's politicians corrupt. A slim majority of 52 percent said martial law harmed the country, while 43 percent said dictatorship brought benefits.

However, Western observers expressed doubt today that the nation's military leaders, who have sought international acceptance through heavy Pakistani participation in U.N. peacekeeping efforts, would reclaim direct control of the government. And Leghari, a parliamentary appointee who has wielded his presidential powers with vigor in recent months, told reporters tonight: "I think democracy is here to stay."

Unless his Muslim League captures a sizable majority, Sharif could be constrained by Leghari's assertiveness and by a newly created advisory council of military and civilian leaders. Tough bargaining by the International Monetary Fund before releasing loan funds could further limit the new government's flexibility to solve Pakistan's serious economic troubles, which include unemployment, inflation, heavy debt, deficit spending and a shortage of foreign currency.

Sharif's likely return to the prime minister's office could also inject uncertainty into Pakistan's relations with the United States. When he served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993, the State Department was upset by his failure to control illegal drug trafficking and terrorist activity based in Pakistan.

In 1993, another president dismissed Sharif's government for economic mismanagement and alleged corruption, but the Supreme Court briefly restored him to power before he resigned to avoid a military takeover. As opposition leader, he devoted the last three years to efforts to undermine Bhutto's coalition government.

While Sharif was prime minister, a steel mill owned by his family expanded and prospered, raising public suspicions of corrupt dealings. His relatives also owned two financial cooperatives that failed amid allegations of embezzlement, although an investigation exonerated Sharif and his family.

Pakistanis harbor some fond memories of Sharif as well, particularly for two pet projects -- initiating a multi-lane highway between Islamabad and Lahore and subsidizing the purchase of yellow taxicabs by drivers. The return of the former industrialist from Lahore, capital of Punjab Province, is likely to restore the confidence of Pakistan's business leaders in a struggling economy.

But Sharif's reemergence was less a political embrace of him than a rejection of Bhutto, 43, in whom many Pakistanis had placed great hopes as a crusader for democracy. Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, is the charismatic daughter of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed by a military government in 1979. Like her most recent administration, her first government ended in 1990 on a president's dismissal order.

Results announced at polling stations but not made official by the national election commission showed Sharif's Muslim League sweeping the populous Punjab Province and making inroads in Sindh, Bhutto's home province. A likely Muslim League ally, the Awami National Party, was dominating the North West Frontier Province.

Little support emerged for Imran Khan, a former cricket star and perhaps the country's most prominent non-voter. His Movement for Justice, which campaigned against corruption and for government accountability, did not field a candidate to represent Khan's ancestral village. For that reason, Khan said, he did not vote. In past elections, he did not vote because he was out of the country playing cricket.

© 1997 The Washington Post Company