GUJRAT, Pakistan -- Here in rural Punjab, where most of this country's voters live, Benazir Bhutto's political fate will probably be determined. And here, there is solid evidence that she has turned her uphill battle to become Pakistan's prime minister again into a horse race -- with maybe a tense photo finish.
Along 200 miles of packed highway between Lahore and Islamabad this week, the red, black and green flags of her Pakistan People's Party fluttering over small settlements of earthen houses far outnumbered those of the Islami Jamhorri Ittehad, the main party within the conservative alliance opposing her.
On the narrow streets of Gujrat, a large rural town halfway along the Punjab highway, many voters have dismissed, in interviews, the accusations of corruption and incompetence against Ms. Bhutto and are angered by what they perceive as a conspiracy of the rich and the military to negate the people's choice by dismissing her from office.
"People were shocked by her dismissal, but they now are very sympathetic to her," said Kourban Tahir, editor of a Gujrat newspaper, the Weekly Challenge. "There's been corruption in Pakistan since its inception, so people here don't mind a little corruption -- and they don't believe it has been proven against her."
The banners and sentiments in Punjab represent a somewhat surprising and distinctly encouraging turn of events for Ms. Bhutto, who is crisscrossing Pakistan in the final week of the election campaign playing the role of martyr to packed, enthusiastic rallies.
Two months ago -- when she was suddenly dismissed after 20 months in office and her government dissolved by Pakistan's president -- Ms. Bhutto was given virtually no chance of regaining the prime minister's office in the face of the conservative and military powers arrayed against her.
President Ghulum Ishaq Khan went on national television to claim he had strong evidence of corruption within her regime and family. This was followed by a rash of court cases filed against Ms. Bhutto, several of her top ministers and her husband, who remains in jail on a kidnapping charge.
Two more corruption charges were filed against her Wednesday. The action brought to six the number of cases before special one-judge tribunals set up to try corruption charges.
Justice Mohammad Amir Malik set a hearing for today to determine whether Ms. Bhutto should stand trial. So far, little concrete evidence against her has come to light, and the charges seem to be backfiring on her accusers.
If Pakistan's national elections are held next Wednesday as scheduled and if they are conducted fairly, it now appears that Ms. Bhutto's party may end up with the largest number of seats in parliament -- though not necessarily a majority --just as it did in her first election campaign in November 1988.
That does not automatically mean that she will become prime minister again.
Though President Khan and Gen. Mizra Aslam Beg, the army chief of staff, recently stressed that the elections will definitely be held, many Bhutto supporters fear that a last-minute pretext will be found to call off the vote.
If the election is held and she falls short of a majority o parliament seats, her opponents may well be able to patch together enough of a coalition to prevent her from again forming a minority government.
And even if she were to prevail in the elections, her backers als fear that the president, his appointed caretaker government and the army would attempt a return to the kind of martial law that Pakistan endured under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq from 1977 to 1988.
But the army, which clearly had a strong hand in Ms. Bhutto's dismissal, is no longer perceived here as completely set on keeping her from office at all cost. And some believe that the military has recently been disassociating itself from President Khan and is not particularly eager to get involved with the day-to-day running of the country.
In turn, Ms. Bhutto's campaign has stopped criticizing the army and is mainly pitting her against President Khan. They are casting him as a "closet fundamentalist" leading a group of old men in victimizing a progressive young woman, and they are vowing to force his dismissal if she gets re-elected.
Meanwhile, her principal political opponent, the Islami Jamhorri Ittehad, is using the powers of incumbency enjoyed by its allies in the caretaker government to advance its cause.
Coverage of the election in the Pakistan Times, a government newspaper, has been distinctly one-sided in favor of the IJI, with daily claims that Ms. Bhutto is a tool of India (Pakistan's longtime enemy) and of Israeli-American Jewish interests, heresy in a Moslem state. An IJI ad in the paper this week pictured her with India's former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and Salman Rushdie, the author who has been vilified in the Islamic world.
But parliamentary elections in Pakistan are often decided on intensely local issues, primarily which candidate can do the most for his constituents -- from feasts for thousands of supporters during the campaign to promises of local public works projects.
The IJI's platform promises that it would form an "Islamic welfare state" in Pakistan, "doubling natural resources" within five years and initiating a guaranteed per capita income of about $160, about a third of the current national average.
The IJI's candidate for prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is the chief minister of Punjab state in northeastern Pakistan. With 115 of the National Assembly's 217 elected seats, Punjab is where the bulk of the most closely contested campaigns are being waged -- and probably is where the election will be decided.
On Street No. 1 of the Gulshan Colony section of Gujrat, where the Pakistan People's Party has targeted a seat held by an IJI family for more than 30 years, a new sewer line is being put in, courtesy of the IJI candidate's clout.
While plenty of IJI supporters and banners can be found nearby, most residents of the street laugh at the sewer line in front of their homes, saying they favor Ms. Bhutto and the PPP anyway.