ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, OCT. 25 -- One day after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's unexpected rout in national elections, questions remain about whether Pakistan's military-backed caretaker government conducted the voting fairly.
While a multinational observer team sequestered itself to study returns before issuing a public statement Friday, Western election specialists who were stunned by the scale of Bhutto's defeat raised questions about some of the government's published results.
Members of the U.S.-led observer team also have raised questions about the conduct of the voting, according to sources, and the team appeared unlikely to issue an unqualified endorsement of the election. But the sources added that no final statement about the election had been agreed to by the observer team, and that discussions among them were continuing.
The team's verdict is important to the U.S. government because a vocal section of Congress, mainly Democrats, has said it wants to make an estimated $600 million in annual aid to Pakistan contingent on the election having been held freely and fairly. Members of the Bush administration also have expressed concerns about the future of the U.S.-Pakistani alliance if rigging is uncovered.
The U.S. concerns come amid widespread uncertainty within Pakistan about what the election result will mean for the country. Urban liberals fear that the new government, which has a strong Islamic constituency, will reverse the tentative steps toward cultural tolerance taken under the secular-minded Bhutto. Others wonder what foreign-policy agenda Pakistan's army will pursue now that a stable civilian government with hawkish views is set to take power.
The caretaker government's rightist Islamic Democratic Alliance coalition, known as IJI, its Urdu-language initials, won 105 of 207 assembly seats, according to the final results, compared to 45 for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The result defied a host of predictions published by both liberal and conservative newspapers here that the PPP would win at least 70 seats and perhaps 100 or more.
At his first news conference since the election, interim Prime Minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi sought to assuage Western fears that Pakistan's new administration would seek aggressively to build a nuclear bomb. Jatoi repeated past denials that Pakistan has stepped up its nuclear program and said he thought he could solve strains with Washington over the issue through discussions after his government is formed.
Bhutto, with her senior advisers still recovering from the shock of Wednesday's results, pressed her charges that the vote was stolen. She and other PPP officials said that in a number of districts, party representatives who were supposed to monitor the counting had been forcibly removed, and that results tallied by their agents during Wednesday's voting did not accord with numbers later released by the government.
Jatoi dismissed Bhutto's charges. "There was no rigging at all," he said. "I expect Benazir Bhutto to accept the result and prove to the world that she is a democrat."
Many of the questions raised today focused on the reported turnout, which the government said was slightly higher than during the last election, in 1988. Independent observers reported a low turnout, however, and in any event the vote tallies released by the government indicated a considerably higher turnout than even its own estimate, raising questions about whether voter rolls were padded to influence the result.
Western reporters and other independent observers who traversed Pakistan Wednesday to check polling places found little evidence of voter intimidation, ballot-stealing or violence that might have influenced the IJI's overwhelming victory. But as final results were published today, questions focused on whether significant rigging might have occurred away from the polling stations.
The government has not yet published the total number of votes cast in each of the 203 national assembly races that were decided in Wednesday's elections. Instead, it has so far released only the votes won by the winner and runner-up in each district. In nearly every district, at least four or five candidates entered the race, and in some there were as many as 16 contenders.
An analysis of 142 districts in Pakistan's three most populous provinces for which results were available raises some questions about the government's figures. On average, the votes attributed to the winner and runner-up in those districts equaled the total number of votes cast in the 1988 election, meaning that if all the votes in Wednesday's election were tabulated, the turnout would be considerably higher than last time, not roughly the same, as the government has said.
Election specialists said the anomaly might be explained by a large surge in voter registration between 1988 and 1990. But Pakistanis and diplomats said they had received no reports of such a surge.
In districts where IJI leaders such as Jatoi and Nawaz Sharif won strong and in some cases unexpected victories over PPP rivals, the discrepancy in turnout figures was even larger. In one district, where Jatoi's son defeated Bhutto's jailed husband, the winner and runner-up garnered 35 percent more votes Wednesday than all of the ballots cast in the district two years ago.
Election specialists said that while the discrepancies raised questions about the voting, they did not necessarily indicate fraud. The discrepancies might be explained by such local factors as weather or voter attitudes that contributed to a sharp change in turnout figures. And some analysts speculated that widespread dissatisfaction in Pakistan over the conduct of Bhutto and her husband during her 20 months in power might have attracted unexpectedly large numbers to the polls in the districts of IJI leaders.