PAKISTANI opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who gained worldwide attention for becoming the first woman prime minister of an Islamic state, has called for a "long march" to the parliament in Islamabad tomorrow to protest government corruption and mismanagement.
Activists from Ms. Bhutto's People's Democratic Alliance (PDA) are expected to converge on Islamabad, march to the lower house of parliament, and try to paralyze the government.
Bhutto's action comes as her rival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, appears politically vulnerable over the flagging economy and splits in his ruling alliance.
The march could lead to the most bitter confrontation between Pakistan's strongest political factions, Mr. Sharif's Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA) and Bhutto's PDA.
While Western diplomats and officials see few signs that Sharif is in serious trouble, some say Bhutto's support is the strongest it has been since her government was dismissed on corruption charges more than two years ago.
Since Sharif came to power in 1990, he has pushed several initiatives, including deregulation and privatization of state-owned factories. These moves have been applauded by Pakistan's business community.
In addition, Sharif points to his decision to send the Army to quell a crime wave in southern Sindh Province this summer. But observers say this gain could be short-lived. Once the Army leaves, they say, the crime rate will sharply rise again.
"The root cause of the lawlessness lies in social and economic problems - rising unemployment - problems which cannot be immediately resolved," says a senior Pakistani official who requested anonymity.
A split this year between the ruling alliance and the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, a strong regional party, has left Sharif with a weakened political mandate. The ruling alliance retains control of the 217-seat National Assembly, but has lost the two-thirds majority it needs to bring about major constitutional changes.
The state of the economy is also raising concerns. The government claims that some of its plans to liberalize the economy, such as privatization of state-owned factories, have been very successful.
But that optimism has been overshadowed by the heavy damage to roads, bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure caused by floods this summer. Repairs could cost as much as 50 billion rupees ($2 billion).
Bhutto hopes to capitalize on economic issues. "This is a battle for bread and butter," she says.
In addition, Bhutto has pointed to alleged corruption in the handling of government contracts and has questioned several purchases, including new aircraft for government officials, when ordinary Pakistanis are scraping to get by.
Bhutto's march presents Sharif with a dilemma. If he uses security and police forces to stop the march, Bhutto could be seen as a victim of harsh tactics. If he allows Bhutto to march, he risks allowing her to expand her appeal.
Sharif says the march will not receive widespread support. "The masses are not foolish enough to join marches such as [those] announced by the PDA, and everybody will see people supporting our policies for progress and development," he told reporters.
In Pakistan's 45 years of independence, few populist movements have forced a change of government. The two political forces who have the power to bring about a change, the president and the Army, are not likely to get involved in any confrontation.
President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto on corruption charges two years ago. The Army, which has ruled Pakistan for over half of its existence, is keeping a low profile.
Senior officials and Western diplomats say an expected large turnout could indicate a boost in Bhutto's popularity, but suggest it would take some time for her to mount a serious challenge.