LAHORE, Pakistan -- A tumultuous procession of hundreds of thousands of Benazir Bhutto's supporters swept into this ancient city last night in a dramatic conclusion to Pakistan's bitterly fought national election campaign.
Accompanied by shooting fireworks, blaring music and the exhaust of every imaginable kind of vehicle, the 14-hour-long, peaceful show of support began about 75 miles to the west in the city of Faisalbad and finally ended about 2 o'clock here this morning -- only because Pakistan's election laws mandated a cutoff on electioneering at midnight.
The mass emotions engendered by the charismatic Mrs. Bhutto, dismissed as prime minister Aug. 6, humiliated her main opponent in tomorrow's election, Mian Nawaz Sharif, chief minister of the Punjab province of which Lahore is capital. His own nearby rally only attracted about 10,000 largely unenthusiastic spectators.
And it underscored the rapid political comeback that Mrs. Bhutto has made over the last few weeks in the face of six court charges of corruption and the continuing possibility that the election still might be canceled by her conservative opponents in the caretaker regime that replaced her government.
But the colorful, cacophonous outpouring of support does not necessarily mean that she will be returned to office.
Most analysts predict that her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is not likely to win the clear majority of seats in the National Assembly that it would need to elect her prime minister a month after Election Day -- in part because of the feared possibility of large-scale vote-rigging by Pakistan's government and army.
"If we don't have a landslide in our favor, they'll be able to stop us," Shafqat Mahmood, a Bhutto aide, said of her opponents. "We're living with the feeling that, where races are close, they're going to make up the difference through rigging.
President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who dissolved Mrs. Bhutto's government, has stressed repeatedly that a fair election will be held. Sunday he announced that 35,000 army troops will be sent to the violence-torn southern province of Sind, a Bhutto stronghold, to guard polling places.
But Mrs. Bhutto's forces allege that the government will tamper with absentee ballots, limit efforts to transport her supporters to the polls tomorrow and use the soldiers and other means to intimidate those who would vote for her.
An international team of 40 poll watchers, led by the National Democratic Institute of Washington, D.C., arrived in Pakistan this week and intends to fan out to polling sites. But their small number is dwarfed by the task of observing even a sample of what is likely to be more than 20 million votes.
Mrs. Bhutto's procession -- slowed to a crawl at the end by its own congested mass -- echoed her return to Pakistan from exile overseas in April 1986, when at least a half-million supporters met her at the Lahore airport and it took more than 10 hours for her to enter the city.