LAHORE, PAKISTAN, OCT. 22 -- Pakistan's angry election campaign ended peacefully here tonight in a swirl of fireworks and songs as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to cheer for ousted prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her chief rival Nawaz Sharif, setting the stage for a vote Wednesday that is difficult to predict.
The crowds greeting Bhutto, who entered this ancient Mogul city after sunset atop a multi-colored truck, were larger and more enthusiastic than those turning out for Sharif. But crowd size is regarded as a poor gauge of political popularity in Pakistan, and there is virtually no reliable polling data about the election.
Bhutto, who leads the Pakistan Peoples Party, was dismissed as prime minister on Aug. 6 and charged with corruption and nepotism. Both her party and Sharif's rightist Islamic Democratic Alliance, known by its Urdu-language initials of IJI, which has governed the country through a caretaker administration since then, are predicting victory on Wednesday.
After nearly three months of uncertainty about whether an election would be held at all, and amid charges from both camps about efforts to rig the vote, tonight's peaceful campaign climax was seen by party activists and foreign election observers as an auspicious prelude to Wednesday's polling.
Past election results and analysis of the strength of the two candidates in Pakistan's four provinces suggest that neither is likely to win an outright majority, although some independent analysts say they have detected a strong swing toward the PPP during the past two weeks.
A split result would likely set off a week-long scramble to form a coalition government, with the IJI heavily favored to prevail, partly because of its strong backing from the country's influential military. The PPP's ties with Pakistan's smaller parties were seriously weakened during Bhutto's 20 months in power, and it appears unlikely that she could attract a sizable number of coalition partners.
All but eight of Pakistan's 207 national assembly seats will be decided Wednesday. In the 1988 election, the first fair vote held in more than a decade, the PPP won a plurality of 93 seats, 38 more than the IJI. After an initial period of uncertainty, Bhutto became prime minister by negotiating a coalition with several smaller parties.
With both the PPP and the IJI expected roughly to match their 1988 showings in the provinces of Sind, Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan, the populous province of Punjab is seen as the election's decisive battle ground. Bhutto and Sharif ended their campaigns in Lahore, Punjab's capital, in an attempt to shore up support in that province.
Despite tonight's boisterous rallies, this month's campaign has been generally subdued in comparison to 1988, leading some analysts to predict a low voter turnout Wednesday.
Bhutto, Sharif and a cavalcade of other National Assembly candidates hurled emotional charges at one another at tonight's rallies. IJI speechmakers questioned Bhutto's patriotism and Islamic credentials while PPP activists denounced the IJI for persecuting Bhutto and her family.