ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, OCT. 26 -- A U.S.-based multinational observer team said today that it had so far found no evidence of rigging in Pakistan's election that would have significantly altered Wednesday's landslide defeat of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The co-leader of the delegation, former Turkish foreign minister Vahit Halefoglu, said the team's election specialists would continue to conduct statistical analyses to probe questions raised about oddities in voter turnout numbers and election results. But so far, Halefoglu said, "The delegation has received no evidence that would allow us to substantiate allegations concerning irregular vote totals."
Bhutto and leaders of her Pakistan People's Party claimed after Wednesday's vote that her loss was due to widespread electoral fraud. The observer team said it had received credible reports of serious but isolated incidents of rigging and intimidation, and it criticized state-controlled television for biased coverage of the campaign. But overall, "The elections as we observed them at the local level were generally open, orderly and well-administered," Halefoglu said.
For the United States and other Western allies of Pakistan, the observers' endorsement is likely to close the books on a vote that marked a sharp reversal in the fortunes of Bhutto, a former exile who became prime minister after winning a plurality in a 1988 election. In Wednesday's vote, Bhutto's party lost half its seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan's legislature, and faces a difficult fight in provincial elections set for Saturday.
The election result has paved the way to power for a politically stable rightist government led by the Islamic Democratic Alliance, known by its Urdu-language initials, IJI. The coalition has close ties to the military, which has governed Pakistan for about half of its 43 years of independence.
The coalition, whose partners range from moderate secularists to Islamic radicals, already has begun the task of choosing a prime minister from its fractious ranks. There are two main contenders: militant nationalist Nawaz Sharif, who is the favorite, and interim Prime Minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a former Bhutto ally who is generally regarded as more moderate and less politically effective than Sharif.
It may be as long as two weeks before the IJI chooses its prime minister, according to IJI officials and activists. The assembly is not expected to formally endorse a prime minister until next month.
Because of the IJI's overwhelming election mandate and its comfortable working relationship with the army, whoever becomes prime minister is likely to lead the country with a confidence rarely enjoyed by civilian heads of government in Pakistan's recent history. Even some Pakistanis disappointed by the scale of Bhutto's defeat say they look forward to a period of relative stability in a country that has been rocked by ethnic violence and confrontational politics in recent years.
With her party in tatters, her husband in jail on kidnapping charges and her allegations of massive vote-rigging falling mainly on deaf ears, Bhutto would appear to face a long and arduous comeback trail. But as the projected leader of the opposition in the legislature, she is likely to maintain her visible public platform in Pakistan and abroad.