The stage is set for a test of wills between Pakistan's President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq and exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The return today of Ms. Bhutto, daughter and political heir of the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is likely to open a new and unpredictable chapter in Pakistan's volatile politics.
After spending more than 11/2 years in self-imposed exile in London, Ms. Bhutto returns to her homeland for the funeral of her younger brother, Shahnawaz, who was found dead under unusual circumstances in his apartment in Cannes, France.
Here in the family's ancestral birthplace, 250 miles northeast of Karachi in Sind Province, tiny black flags waft from mud-baked village huts. This is the heart of Bhutto country, where few have forgotten that Benazir's father was hanged for murder by General Zia's military government six years ago.
Ms. Bhutto's banned Pakistan People's Party hopes to organize 100,000 people in a demonstration of support for her return, says Dr. Ashraf Abbassi, a local party leader.
But General Zia is taking no chances that an outpouring of sympathy for the Bhutto family could turn into a huge, and possibly unmanageable, political demonstration. Army and paramilitary reinforcements have been rushed to Sind province.
It was only two years ago that Sindis rose against the military regime. It was the greatest domestic challenge Zia faced and more than 100 people were killed in outbreaks. Today, bitter memories remain. Whether the continuing Sindi resentment will coalesce around Benazir Bhutto is a key question that Pakistanis and Western diplomats are pondering.
``The flow of politicians of all stripes and coloration to express their condolences will be a telling sign,'' says one Western official who is a veteran observer of Pakistani politics.
The Bhutto family has been active in opposing Zia's regime. Benazir was in prison and under house arrest for nearly three years before leaving the country in January 1984. Her brothers Shahnawaz and Murtaza headed the Al-Zulfikar guerrilla group which is aimed at overthrowing Zia. Given the mysterious circumstances of Shahnawaz's death, it is unlikely that Pakistanis will believe he died of natural causes.
The way Bhutto is greeted on her arrival -- and the way the funeral is held -- could prove the ultimate consideration regarding when and if Pakistan's generals will lift or relax martial law.
Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo announced that martial law would be lifted by year's end. But martial law reexerted itself in full force, as scores of workers and leaders from the Pakistan Peoples' Party were placed under house arrest and other politicians were banned from traveling to Sind.
The PPP is also limited by the fact that most of its leaders, including the Bhutto family, are in exile abroad and by clashes of personality and the split over tactics.
Whether Benazir remains in Pakistan after the funeral will be telling evidence of how strong she considers her party.
``Will she emerge as the dominant personality of the opposition -- the alternative to Zia?'' the Western diplomat asks. ``And, like it or not, there is now an elected assembly, and the People's Party remains outside. She will have to break through this. So far Zia has played his cards very cleverly.''
But the final imponderable, Pakistanis say, is whether Benazir Bhutto can rally support outside the Sind, especially in Pakistan's most crucial province, the lush and favored Punjab.
With 56 percent of the country's population, Punjab has always been the bellwether of Pakistani politics, and its consequent special treatment rankles the people of Sind. Driving through the province's baked and dusty interior, one hears complaints of Sindi land being allocated to soldiers from the Punjab. The arrival of Afghan refugees is the latest source of resentment among Sind's 22 million people.
Secessionist feeling is growing in this province, where a visitor is always reminded that even though 65 percent of government revenue is generated by customs and excise duties -- mostly from the Sindi capital and port city of Karachi -- the present five-year plan allots 27.1 billion rupees ($1.7 billion) for development in the Punjab and only 11.6 billion rupees for development in Sind.
Will Sind embrace the articulate Benazir, who more than any other political leader seems synonymous with the rough and tumble of Pakistani politics? Do the Bhuttos have a political future?
``Only God knows,'' says Sardar Nabibaux Bhutto, the patriarch of the Bhutto clan and Benazir's great-uncle. ``This is Pakistan.''