ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Benazir Bhutto got the crowds -- big, enthusiastic gatherings that lavished her with their wild energy.
Her far less charismatic, conservative rivals got the votes -- by whopping margins that stopped her from returning as Pakistan's prime minister.
This fundamental incongruity -- showing up Wednesday in this country's latest exercise in democracy -- left independent observers more perplexed than anything else.
"It's all very odd," a European diplomat said. "It's pretty hard to rig a landslide without a lot of people knowing about it, but yet there's this dissonance there that can't be explained."
Ms. Bhutto's forces continued to explain her humiliating defeat in Wednesday's National Assembly elections by alleging massive vote fraud.
They pointed to the striking contrast between anecdotal evidence that the voter turnout was light in many places and the relatively high overall vote totals that emerged in the final counting.
More particularly, they questioned their loss of certain long-held seats in the critical province of Punjab and the huge winning margins racked up by Pakistan's caretaker prime minister and two of his relatives in their individual races for assembly seats in southern Sind province, a Bhutto stronghold.
The election results "are very hard to believe," said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Ms. Bhutto's former education minister. "They're quite in contrast to all the signs and projections of a very close race."
Spokesmen for the triumphant coalition in Wednesday's vote acknowledged that the outcome exceeded even their most hopeful projections but attributed their victory to a simple truth of their version of Pakistani politics: Large crowds do not necessarily translate into votes.
Despite the bedlam that ensued almost everywhere she went in the last week of the campaign, they said, Ms. Bhutto's popularity has been waning since even before she first took office in 1988.
And they believe she was hurt badly at the end of this campaign by their conscious effort to paint her as soft toward India, Pakistan's traditional enemy, and as trying to lobby in the United States for direct support for her candidacy.
"There were enough observers around to witness that there was no vote rigging," said Husain Haqqani, spokesman for Ms. Bhutto's rivals.
"Her charges are just the tears of a sore loser. I think Benazir Bhutto is having difficulty reconciling the fact that her party is no longer as popular as it was a few years ago."
An international team of poll watchers who monitored the vote has not yet rendered its opinion on whether there was, in fact, vote rigging. But there has been no widespread public outcry, which might be expected if the election were stolen on a massive scale.
And the consensus that emerged in interviews is that -- while various kinds of vote tampering might have cost Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party from five to 20 National Assembly seats among the 206 Moslem seats at stake -- rigging does not account for the landslide that buried her forces.
"You can't rig a hundred constituencies," said Kaleem Omar, a respected Pakistani newspaper and magazine columnist. "There's just no way that the [conservative coalition] could have fixed the election to this extent."
In the end, the seats held by Ms. Bhutto's party were more than halved -- from 93 to 45 -- and those held by the opposition coalition were almost doubled, from 54 to 105, providing more than enough votes to control the assembly.
More firm answers about what happened Wednesday may emerge in tomorrow's election for seats in Pakistan's four provincial assemblies.
Some within Ms. Bhutto's party were urging her yesterday to withdraw the PPP from that election, but she was said to have rejected that idea.
However, Ms. Wazir Ali said that if vote rigging made those provincial elections "meaningless," Ms. Bhutto might choose to not sit in opposition in the National Assembly from her home district seat, to which she won re-election Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the race among contenders for prime minister -- which will be formally decided after the assembly gathers within a month -- appears to have narrowed to a contest between two men, a contest that probably will be decided in consultation with the head of the country's military, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg. The two contenders are:
* Mian Nawaz Sharif, 40, a rich Lahore industrialist and former Punjab chief minister, who was Ms. Bhutto's bitter rival during the campaign and whose family holdings were nationalized during the regime of Ms. Bhutto's father in the 1970s.
* Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, 59, one of Pakistan's largest landowners, who was appointed caretaker prime minister after Ms. Bhutto was dismissed from office Aug. 6.