PAKISTAN'S election campaign is in full swing as former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif vie desperately for a comeback in Wednesday's parliamentary vote.
Each was ousted from office on corruption charges by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan long before their terms were completed. The charges made against Ms. Bhutto in 1989 were never proved and Mr. Sharif was later absolved and restored to office by the country's supreme court. But a continuing power struggle between Sharif and President Khan ended in their joint resignations in July, and the scheduling of next week's elections.
Bhutto is riding on the popularity of her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 after a military overthrow. Sharif draws his support from the business community and promises to continue his efforts to liberalize Pakistan's economy.
The elections are unique in Pakistan's political history in that they are the first in which candidates accused of drug trafficking or failing to pay back bank loans have been barred from the contest. At least eight known drug barons have been forbidden from running, and another former prime minister, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, has been barred from participating.
Interim Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi changed the election law in a wide-reaching drive to clean up government and society. In addition to barring candidates from running for office, he has ordered a large number of telephone and electricity customers, including politicians, to pay overdue bills or face immediate prosecution.
Enforcing of these anticorruption laws ``has created a lot of confusion, because people were just not sure if one candidate or the other would be kept out'' says a senior official. Most officials concede that such confusion was the main reason for a lackluster campaign until this week.
Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto have intensified their campaigns during the past week, crisscrossing the country in helicopters and addressing large crowds of supporters. Each is delivering a message of hope and progress if his or her party is brought into power.
Bhutto's campaign message has been centered around criticism of alleged corruption during Sharif's 2 1/2 year rule. She has also promised to reorganize the government to give more powers to local governments to ease delays involved in clearing measures through Islamabad.
For his part, Sharif promises to continue his two-year-old program of liberal economic reforms and privatization. He removed restrictions on investments and allowed citizens to freely keep foreign currency accounts.
Although there are no organized opinion polls to suggest voters' preference, most analysts agree Bhutto is surging ahead. They point to her likely success in her home province of Sindh as well as in parts of Sharif's home province of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province.
She also has overcome potentially threatening family problems in the runup to the poll. Her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, who lives in exile in Damascus and was planning to run against her, has agreed to withdraw his nomination in many of the districts where they were competing.
Sharif is also faced with a split with the ``Jamaat-i-Islami'' Islamic party, which supported his campaign when he first became the prime minister in 1990. Although Jamaat is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, it is almost certain to cut into Sharif's vote and thus benefit Ms. Bhutto.
Some officials are worried voter turnout may be low. ``So far, people don't seem to have found anything to latch onto. The faces are familiar, the policies have similarities, and it seems there's nobody with new, bright sparks,'' one diplomat says.
But others argue that, if Ms. Bhutto shows a clear edge in coming days, her charisma may appeal to a larger number of voters, urging them to come out on voting day. ``Many of the voters may be attracted to Benazir because the Bhutto name carries an important sense of identity and appeal,'' says a retired bureaucrat who served in her father's government.
``A full decade after his death, Bhutto remained popular enough to ensure the election of his daughter, Benazir, to the premier position he once held. Wherever she campaigned in Sindh and much of Punjab, the popular uproar that greeted her was `Jiye Bhutto' [Bhutto lives],'' wrote American historian Stanley Wolpert in a recent book on the life of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The Pakistani bureaucrat says: ``Even today, that legacy has the capability to draw support for Benazir.''