Seven and a half weeks after the brutal slaying of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistanis will go the polls in what has become a contentious referendum on the beleaguered presidency of Pervez Musharraf.
While Musharraf, who has been a key ally of the United States, is not on the ballot himself, his party is facing a looming embarrassment in the parliamentary election set for February 18.
Assuming the highly anticipated election is not delayed again (it was originally scheduled for January 8), it could usher in a very tumultuous period in Pakistani politics.
Here are six factors to watch in next week's vote:
1) How blatantly is the vote rigged?
Observers widely expect that Pakistani officials are already working to rig the election in Musharraf's favor. For months, opposition parties have been complaining that the official lists of voters have been manipulated to remove some groups likely to vote against the Pakistani leader.
More recently, Musharraf banned exit polling, and independent observers will be barred from making unscheduled visits to polling stations on election day. "Beyond a doubt, we are looking at rigged elections," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the same time, it will be very difficult for Musharraf to tamper with the results enough to engineer a win for the Pakistani Muslim League-Q, the ruling party that supports Musharraf. Its image has been so battered by Musharraf's controversial miscues, including his sacking of key Supreme Court justices and his recent imposition of emergency rule, that polls show only 14 percent of Pakistanis still support it.
2) How big is the sympathy vote?
Bhutto's assassination sparked a massive wave of popular sentiment that was expected to favor her Pakistan Peoples Party. But nearly eight weeks later, some of the emotions might well have subsided. Some party supporters have also been disillusioned by the appointment of her controversial husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to head the party. Known widely as "Mr. Ten Percent," he has long battled corruption allegations.
Still, Bhutto remains, even in death, perhaps the most powerful figure in Pakistani politics, and opinion polls suggest that as many as half of Pakistanis plan to vote for the PPP.
3) What about the religious vote?
Western officials have long feared that Pakistan's more extremist religious parties could become a larger factor in its historically more secular politics. In particular, they might be motivated to vote by Musharraf's bloody crackdown last year on supporters of a radical preacher at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
A coalition of religious parties currently has about 10 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, but the parties have not been able to broaden their base much beyond a few of the country's western provinces. They are not expected to gain many seats and, indeed, could even end up losing a few .
4) What kind of violence occurs?
Pakistani security forces are already on a heightened security alert ahead of the election. Tribal extremists, who have been staging a campaign of suicide bombings, could try to strike during the election. Supporters of Bhutto's PPP would be among their top targets.
Beyond election day violence, opposition party supporters could also turn violent if they believe the election results are rigged. "It is possible -- perhaps even likely -- that any election result, even if fair, will be challenged vociferously by the losers," Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a congressional panel. A harsh government crackdown, in turn, could spark even further trouble.
5) What does the Army do?
The military, which traditionally sees itself as the guardian of Pakistan's political stability, has watched its reputtion plummet after the eight-year rule of Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup. The Army has continued to back Musharraf, who recently stepped down as its chief under pressure, and would be brought in to tamp down any post-election violence.
But many Pakistanis are calling for the military to remove itself from politics, and top generals' patience with Musharraf could be starting to wear thin. "If this dissatisfaction with the president continues, the Army may want to distance itself from him," says Shuja Nawaz, who has written a book about Pakistan's Army. "But I don't think that the mood in the Pakistani military is for direct rule."
6) Can the winners form a government?
If the PPP fails to win a majority (or if the ruling party cannot engineer a majority for itself), negotiations for a coalition government could be difficult. Bhutto's assassination has bred a fundamental distrust between PPP members and Musharraf's supporters.
Musharraf has an even more bitter relationship with Nawaz Sharif, the other leading opposition figure and former prime minister.
If opposition parties do manage to cobble together some sort of coalition, they will face two key obstacles. Not only does Musharraf remain president, but the Senate remains in the hands of Musharraf's ruling party, at least until another election scheduled for next year.
By Kevin Whitelaw