LAHORE, Pakistan — Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, trying to revive her populist Pakistan People's Party after a sharp defeat by the ruling party in a key election test, rallied thousands of followers Saturday with a parade through this ancient walled city.
Devotees mounted railroad cars and rooftops to catch a glimpse of the 34-year-old daughter of executed Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when she arrived by train Saturday afternoon. Thousands then followed behind as she rode in a jeep for hours through the narrow, gaily festooned streets of the city, famous as the setting for Rudyard Kipling's book, "Kim."
Since she came home from self-imposed exile to a tumultuous welcome 18 months ago, Benazir Bhutto has been considered the most serious challenge to the rule of President Zia ul-Haq, an army general, and his handpicked prime minister, Mohammed Khan Junejo.
However, the youthful political leader has never been able to rekindle that initial enthusiasm and achieve her ambition of forcing a nationwide confrontation with the government before the next election, scheduled for 1990.
Meanwhile, the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has steadily gained in strength and confidence since Zia ended eight years of martial law in December, 1985.
The most recent setback to the Bhutto challenge came earlier this month in a National Assembly by-election in a Punjab district that was previously considered a People's Party stronghold.
Although elections in Pakistan are supposed to be conducted on a non-party basis, both the People's Party and the Muslim League unofficially supported candidates. The Muslim League's candidate won the by-election by a huge margin.
According to some local political writers, Bhutto's strategy was to win the by-election in Punjab and then launch a five-week campaign, beginning here in Lahore on Saturday and building up to local elections in November or December, in which the party would again support candidates unofficially.
However, the lopsided Punjab outcome forced Bhutto on the defensive. In a speech at Lahore's railway station Saturday, she even denied that her party had backed any candidate in that election.
The visit here was her first major appearance in Lahore since the huge welcome 18 months ago by as many as a million people. Although Saturday's crowd was enthusiastic--her more militant followers shouted anti-American slogans and burned effigies of President Zia--it was considerably smaller, with estimates of its size ranging from 60,000 to 200,000.
Nonetheless, it was the type of emotional, populist gathering that the leaders of the ruling party and government cannot yet attract as Pakistan attempts to revive its moribund democracy.
Since her previous appearance here, Bhutto has announced her engagement to be married to a Pakistani businessman. The marriage, arranged by the couple's parents, appeared to please many of the older followers of her party interviewed at the rally Saturday.
"It is right that she be married because it is our tradition," said Raja Mohammed Afzal, 55, a party political leader attending the parade. "This is a correct step on the part of her family."