Sharif ready to maul election rivals as Bhutto is forced on to the hustings

Former PM shrugs off court defeat, reports Jan McGirk

Karachi - When the Supreme Court ruled against Benazir Bhutto's desperate appeal to be reinstated as Prime Minister of Pakistan yesterday, she began campaigning in earnest for the first time in these lacklustre elections. There was only one justice who ruled in favour of the woman who had split her Pakistan People's Party into bitter factions.

Following the decision in Islamabad, Ms Bhutto did not criticise the judiciary and told a packed press conference that she was not surprised. With advance warning that her ploy would fail, she was prepared to battle on at the hustings for a third term. But with only four days left before polling, success looks increasingly unlikely. No matter how convincingly she tries to play the martyr, Ms Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari, are portrayed in cartoons as the Bonnie and Clyde of the sub-continent.

The symbol for the Pakistan Muslim League party of the leading contender, Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, is the tiger. Promising to change his stripes after coming back from charges of corruption similar to those which brought down Ms Bhutto's government last November, Mr Sharif appears supremely confident. But he still views Imran Khan, trailing badly in the race for prime minister, as a spoiler, even though the neophyte politician has little chance of bringing the old tiger down or silencing his personal attacks on Mr Khan's playboy past. The cricket hero attracts curious throngs of young men wherever he tours, but many of them appear too young to vote for his Movement for Justice (Tehreek-i-Insaaf).

Ms Bhutto and her party cast doubts over the election process with her petition to the Supreme Court, which demanded reinstatement because President Farooq Leghari has failed to prove his allegations of graft and custodial deaths during a clean-up of ethnic gangs in Karachi. Touring Sind province, her ancestral stronghold, Ms Bhutto managed to rouse a loyal crowd. However, although potshots aimed at her helicopter on Monday injured no one, they show that she is not nearly as secure as she used to be, even on home ground.

Mr Sharif jokes to his audiences about Ms Bhutto's predicament, having bounced back from the same circumstances, and gets laughter and applause when he speaks knowingly of her "reversal of fortune". By contrast, her strident hectoring rarely rouses much spontaneous response. At the outset of the campaign, Ms Bhutto declared imperiously: "We will not accept the results where we do not win."

The shadow of the army, which has had a hand in several past coups, will hang over any new government elected in Pakistan's fourth parliamentary election in just eight years. After the excesses of violence and intrigue of the past three years, some citizens no longer dread interference from the generals. "It's a farce," Arif Ali, a businessman, protested to the Karachi-based magazine Newsline. "Martial law is and has been better than this half-baked democracy."

Nawaz Sharif is suspected by rivals of agreeing not to field candidates against the President. Members of the Islamicist party, Jamaat-i-Islami, have threatened to disrupt the voting on 3 February. General Hamid Gul, the former intelligence chief who distanced himself from his former protege Imran Khan, said last week: "This election is not going to be productive. It will be disastrous and will bring more misery." Pakistan will soon find out.

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