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Pakistani election: The perfect election or the perfect crime?

A day after Benazir Bhutto suffered a landslide defeat, Pakistanis are still unsure if they have witnessed the perfect election or the perfect crime. The problem is that no one can explain how so few voters, with so little fuss, produced so many lopsided margins that Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was routed throughout the country, shrinking from 94 seats in parliament to 46.

Election officials reported light turnout and few challenges. And diplomats, reporters and official observers who visited hundreds of polling booths returned with little evidence of widespread fraud.

"Everywhere we went, we saw low turnout and low enthusiasm," said an observer in the eastern city of Lahore. "But now we're told the vote was far higher than in 1988. That strikes me as very odd."

A Western diplomat in Islamabad agreed. "Everyone is bewildered and scratching their heads," he said. "Did everyone miss something happening? Or did we all totally misread the electorate's mood?"

Answers may come Friday when the 40-member delegation of the National Democratic Institute reports on field visits and ballot counting. Its assessment will be watched closely in Washington, where Bhutto has strong support in Congress.

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 whether the election was held freely and fairly. Members of the Bush administration have also expressed concerns about the future of U.S.-Pakistan alliance if serious rigging is uncovered.

Election returns showed that the right-wing Islamic Democratic Alliance took 105 of the 217 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. With independents joining in, the anti-Bhutto coalition has an outright majority and can form a new government.

Bhutto, who was ousted Aug. 6 after 20 months as prime minister, insisted that the election had been stolen by her political rivals. She predicted political and economic disaster. Pakistan, she told reporters, "is making a U-turn backward."

Sheik Tahseen, a spokesman for Bhutto's party here, insisted that "massive rigging" took place at every polling place after international observers left.

"They stole the ballot boxes," he said. "They kicked and kidnapped the poll workers. They filled the boxes with bogus votes. They made a fire to burn the ballots."

Even before the voting began, Bhutto's loyalists complained of cheating. They said that the tactics included moving polling stations, impounding vehicles used to take supporters to vote and buying voter identity cards from the poor, the people who make up her support base.

Bhutto loyalists cried foul particularly in the rural Sindh race of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, the caretaker prime minister. In 1988, the powerful, cigar-chomping landlord lost the election by 15,000 votes; this time, running against the same candidate, he won by 67,000 votes.

Jatoi's son, Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi, similarly overwhelmed Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in the neighboring district. Three Zardari supporters were killed, and poll workers said Jatoi's workers had faked votes and stuffed ballot boxes.

Meeting reporters Thursday in Islamabad, Jatoi insisted that he and his son had won fair and square. Indeed, he said, the sheer magnitude of the opposition victory showed that there was no cheating.

"Who could have rigged that number of seats?" he asked.

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.