Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is confident she can exert strong pressure on President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq to step down and hold fresh general elections, as a step toward achieving ``genuine democracy'' in Pakistan. Analysts say that Miss Bhutto's campaign for General Zia's ouster and for elections could either gain swift momentum or dissipate slowly, depending on her strategy. They agree that she has the potential to serve as a catalyst for opposition forces.
``The Bhutto mystique is very strong,'' a Western diplomat says, adding that ``people are also very frustrated, after over eight years under martial rule.''
Despite strong public statements against Zia, Bhutto is being careful not to provoke harsh reactions from the government by underlining peaceful methods.
Following a heady reception on her return here from self-imposed exile April 10, the daughter of late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has been using a theme of ``people's power,'' inspired by the historic rise to power of new Philippine President Corazon Aquino.
This week, Bhutto begins a campaign for building ``popular pressure'' through what she terms a ``people's referendum'' on a tour of more than 15 cities across Pakistan, including the capital, Islamabad.
Some observers speculate that the tumultuous welcome she received in Lahore, capital of the major state of Punjab, is not likely to be equaled elsewhere. Lahore, with a population of 3 million, is the traditional bastion of support for her father and his Pakistan People's Party, which she has now inherited.
``It's really too early to say which way she will go. Of course, it is in her own interest to be cautious,'' says political commentator Ayaz Amir.
So far, Bhutto has yet to outline a precise strategy. She has tried to balance her strong public statements against Zia's government by repeatedly asserting that the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is committed to bringing about a ``peaceful and graceful transfer of power.''
Bhutto and her party oppose the last parliamentary elections, held in February 1985, because they were ``held under the umbrella of martial law.'' However, Bhutto maintains that she does not want to provoke a confrontation with the civilian government, headed by Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo, by laying down any deadlines. When asked if she would use a civil disobedience program, she became vague and elusive.
Local observers say that she will have to decide on a plan of action quickly, in order to sustain public support. ``If she doesn't make a categorical announcement about her practical strategy soon after her arrival, she is liable to lose momentum,'' says opposition leader Iqbal Haider.
Observers agree that her leadership qualities are untested. ``She may have charismatic appeal, but she's an unknown quantity,'' says analyst S. M. Zafar.
Many observers also say that the parallels with Philippine President Aquino are thin. ``Cory Aquino does not exist here. Benazir does not have the powerful backing of the Islamic bloc. In fact she represents nonreligious, secular leadership,'' notes Mr. Zafar.
The Pakistan opposition has criticized Zia and his government for using religion for political purposes. Analysts say that while their numbers are small, there are a few fundamentalist organizations backing Zia that could create trouble for Bhutto.
Bhutto is not known to have significant support from the military or labor unions. Some observers say several large trade unions have aligned themselves with rightist groups in the past few years in the absence of cohesiveness within the traditionally leftist-oriented PPP.
Other critics say that Bhutto has yet to make difficult decisions about rebuilding her party, which she has run from Western Europe, where she was in self-imposed exile for nearly two years.
Bhutto is widely considered the best hope for uniting Pakistan's fractured opposition forces. But she has yet to present a concrete, unified program for the fragile 11-party alliance, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, of which the PPP is the largest member.
``She has to organize herself and her party. . . . If the PPP wants to take over the goverment, they'll have to present something for everyone,'' says a Western diplomat.
From early indications, the government seems to have given Bhutto free rein. This is in the hope that the rallies will gradually wane, some analysts say.