Pakistan held its presidential election when lawmakers voted October 6. The incumbent military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, easily won the most votes, but his victory is not yet official because of a pending legal challenge to his candidacy. Meanwhile, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has turned down President Musharraf's plea that she delay her planned return from exile next week. As VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Pakistan's political landscape is mired in uncertainty.
Pakistan is in for some potentially tumultuous days ahead.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is scheduled to return home next week, after striking a deal with General Musharraf to give her amnesty from prosecution on outstanding corruption charges.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Supreme Court is to decide if General Musharraf's candidacy was illegal.
The political opposition says that because President Musharraf also retains his post as army chief of staff, he cannot legally run for president. Analysts say a Supreme Court ruling next week against President Musharraf, coupled with the return from exile of his main political rival, could plunge Pakistan into political turmoil.
Washburn University Law Professor Ali Khan, who received his legal education in Pakistan, believes that if the court rules General Musharraf's candidacy illegal, the electoral college made up of the national parliament and four provincial assemblies, would have to hold a new presidential election.
"If it says the president cannot run because of his army chief position, the elections will be held ineffective because we do not have a second candidate who has won any considerable support in the assemblies. So the elections have to be re-held," he said.
But Middle East and Security Studies Professor Larry Goodson, of the U.S. Army War College, notes that Pakistani courts have in the past tended to side with the military against civilian officials, due to what they have termed "the doctrine of necessity."
Goodson says an anti-Musharraf ruling is possible but not likely. He believes the military is exerting heavy pressure on the Supreme Court to rule in Musharraf's favor.
"I just have this queasy feeling that the fix is in, that they have already locked and cocked and put the guns to the heads of the justices and basically said, 'you cannot rule in that way," he said.
Former State Department South Asia analyst Walter Andersen says an anti-Musharraf court ruling, along with Ms. Bhutto's high-profile return from self-imposed exile, might tempt the president to tighten his grip on power, especially if there are mass demonstrations.
"That puts him in a very dangerous position. My feeling is that he might declare martial law under those circumstances. He also might declare martial law if people come into the streets, even if the courts rule in his favor, if violence escalates in one way or the other significantly," he said.
The United States is, at least publicly, staying out of the fray. White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino says the Bush administration has no comment on the challenge to the legitimacy of the presidential election.
"We wanted there to be free and fair elections. And the Supreme Court is now, in Pakistan, is currently looking at that. And so until there is a final decision, we will decline to comment from here," she said.
Larry Goodson of the Army War College says the sudden upsurge in Pakistani army attacks against Islamic extremist groups in tribal areas may be intended to demonstrate to Washington General Musharraf's continued importance to the war on terror.
"What is going on up there? Because some of this has seemed awfully political to me as well, this sort of, you know, get everyone in Washington convinced that Musharraf is essential because, by golly, because he is holding the line against the militants along the frontier. Well, gee whiz, this seems awfully conveniently timed, as have several of these previous incidences where violence has erupted in the frontier," he said.
Once the question of the presidential election is settled, attention will turn to the parliamentary elections that are now scheduled for early January. Analysts say they will be the first real test of the popularity of Benazir Bhutto - provided, they add, that the elections are free and fair.