ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party suffered a resounding defeat by a conservative coalition in yesterday's national elections here, prompting her to claim "massive" rigging of the vote as the first returns were just being released.
Her charges -- echoing predictions she began making in the final days of the bitterly fought election campaign -- could not be immediately substantiated. They were at variance with the observations of foreign reporters at a small sampling of polling sites around the country.
An international team of poll watchers also monitored yesterday's election. Its official report will not be released until today, but a source on the team said unofficially that its members did not witness what Ms. Bhutto charged.
"We expected fraud, but there has been massive fraud throughout the country," Ms. Bhutto said in one television interview. "I just feel the nation has been cheated. The election has been stolen from us." In another interview, she predicted that civil unrest would result from the vote-rigging.
The rival conservative coalition offered no immediate response to her charges, instead releasing a statement congratulating Pakistan's voters for rejecting her party.
Ms. Bhutto claimed that her political opponents switched boxes full of paper ballots after the voting, rather than opening them in front of her party's poll watchers.
She also said that some of her party's agents had "disappeared" or been arrested during Election Day.
As returns came in this morning -- following an election campaign that amounted to a mudslinging feud over whether Ms. Bhutto should have been dismissed from office in August -- it became increasingly clear that the conservative coalition had racked up a landslide and should sew up the majority needed in Pakistan's National Assembly to name the country's next prime minister.
With 65 percent of Pakistan's 207 electoral districts reporting final results, the conservative coalition had taken 68 seats in the National Assembly, compared with 26 seats for Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
Two ethnic-based parties likely to vote with Ms. Bhutto's opponents won 19 seats. Various independent parties took the remainder.
In one of two districts in which she was running for an assembly seat -- multiple candidacies are permitted -- Ms. Bhutto lost by a sizable margin. In the other race, in her home district of Larkana, she won with 94,209 votes to just 714 for her opponent, allowing her return to the assembly.
Ms. Bhutto's controversial husband -- Asif Ali Zardari, who is in jail on a kidnapping charge -- won one of his two contests. Her mother, running from another Larkana district, also was elected to the assembly.
In a statement last night, Mian Nawaz Sharif, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition and a leading candidate for prime minister, paid tribute to Pakistan's voters for "the thumping victory" over Ms. Bhutto's party.
Echoing a campaign theme in which he claimed Ms. Bhutto was weak on national security and a tool of foreign interests -- particularly U.S. interests -- Mr. Sharif said the Pakistani people "have again proved that they were united to defend the ideological frontiers of the country and that no power on earth can defeat them in their just cause."
More than 100,000 soldiers and police were detailed to safeguard polling sites, but nine people were reported killed and 66 injured in Election Day violence.
Before the vote, political analysts were predicting that Ms. Bhutto would not get the simple majority of National Assembly seats needed to retake the office of prime minister, even though her party could win a moral victory by gaining a plurality of the seats.
But with the first returns this morning, even a moral victory began to look unachievable for Ms. Bhutto's forces. Apparently heading toward a majority in the assembly, the conservative coalition, the Islami Jamhoori Jittehad, should be able to name the country's next prime minister, in part because of the addition of several smaller parties since the 1988 election that first brought Ms. Bhutto to power.
The IJI is united mostly by its hatred of Ms. Bhutto, and so negotiations among its multiple factions and with Pakistan's military establishment over who will become prime minister could take weeks.