FORMER Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who attracted world attention when she became the first woman to lead an Islamic country, was probably prepared for a long and difficult period of political isolation after her government was sacked on corruption charges in August 1990.
But last month's downfall of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government - after a power struggle with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan - has apparently opened the door for Ms. Bhutto's political comeback.
Her opposition People's Democratic Alliance (PDA) joined the new interim government that was appointed to conduct national elections on July 14. Among its ministers is Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband, whom President Khan had jailed after the downfall of Bhutto's government and only released on bail in February.
Mr. Zardari's presence in the interim government only confirmed earlier speculation of a rapproachment between Bhutto and Khan.
Many Pakistanis still remember Bhutto from over a year ago, leading a protest inside the parliament and interrupting a presidential speech by chanting slogans calling for the president to step down: "Go Baba, Go!" But the more recent sight of Zardari being sworn in by Khan was in complete contrast to the earlier performance.
"I have symbolized for the people of Pakistan, a democratic, liberal, and egalitarian country. That is why I have retained their respect and affection. My husband had charges trumped up against him so that I would be driven out of politics. I am proud to say that not only did he honorably face those charges, but he was acquitted even by the kangaroo courts that were trying him," she told reporters recently in response to questions about her life since being ousted from office. She maintains that the char ges and court proceedings against her husband were part of a smear campaign against the PDA.
Bhutto's participation in the new administration, however, has not ended her disagreements with the president and interim Prime Minister Balakh Sher Mazari. Bhutto is demanding that last month's dissolution of the National Assembly be followed by the dissolution of the four provincial assemblies as well, so that free and fair elections are held simultaneously in the center and the provinces. Both Khan and Mr. Mazari have refused to accept that demand. Bhutto calls elections rigged
"What we need in this country is real democracy; that is the exercise of power by the parliament. At the moment, I do not feel confident that we are heading in that direction. At the moment, we have four provincial assemblies in which people were elected during the rigged elections of 1990, and it's my concern that the new government will be unable to function in the presence of four hostile provincial governments," she added. Since her government's dismissal in 1990, Bhutto has also repeatedly demanded the dissolution of the elected assemblies on the grounds that their members were elected in polls that were rigged against her party in a number of constituencies.
She has also repeatedly demanded that the president's wide-ranging powers, which allow him to dissolve the elected assemblies, should be curtailed. Those powers have been used to sack three elected governments since 1988. Bhutto's future
It is not yet clear if Bhutto will remain in the new government if the differences are not resolved. Some of her aides say the split between her and the government may widen further if those differences continue.
Bhutto says she wants to see her country move beyond its present state of a "facade of democracy," where the president and influential officials around him call the shots. Bhutto makes no secret about her desire to become prime minister again.
"I know the people of Pakistan are with me. I know in a free election, the people of Pakistan would vote for me. But I know there are powerful elements who oppose what I stand for, and they will go out of their way to prevent the people of Pakistan from having me as prime minister," she added.
Despite her confidence, Bhutto is faced with critics who see considerable support for her main rival, Mr. Sharif, and a dent in her own support because she has joined the interim government.
The long, hot electoral campaign, followed by polls in July, is expected to test Bhutto's popularity. But the next two and a half months are not only going to be crucial for Bhutto, but also for Pakistan's democracy.