ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- To the cheers of supporters who set off celebratory firecrackers and flung pink flower petals, the party of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto announced yesterday that she would return to her homeland Oct. 18.
It is not known whether Bhutto, who has been in exile in London and Dubai for nearly nine years, would return as nominal ally or nettlesome rival of President Pervez Musharraf. Also not known is whether she might be imprisoned on active charges of corruption.
Bhutto, 54, has been in power-sharing talks for months with the floundering Musharraf. Both sides have said at various points that a deal was nearly sealed, but an accord has proved elusive.
The former prime minister's prospective homecoming is the latest wild card in a Pakistani political scene that has become more roiled every day.
Returning is a major gamble for Bhutto, a charismatic woman whose Pakistan People's Party is expected to make a strong showing in parliamentary elections set within the next four months.
The Bush administration hopes that a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, would pave the way for a smooth transition toward democratic rule. Without it, any number of chaotic scenarios could unfold - including a declaration of emergency rule or, more drastically, martial law by Musharraf.
Either step would give the general sweeping powers to curtail civil liberties and would almost certainly lead to the postponement or cancellation of parliamentary elections.
Bhutto's impending return was announced four days after the government deported another long-exiled rival of the president, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999.
Sharif attempted to return home with the approval of Pakistan's Supreme Court but was on the ground in Pakistan for less than four hours before being flown back to Saudi Arabia, where he had spent most of his exile under an agreement between the Saudis and the Pakistani government.
Officials with Bhutto's party say she will return home regardless of whether a power-sharing deal is reached with Musharraf.
The government said that Bhutto is free to come back but that the charges against her remain active. "The law will take its course," Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.
Senior aides to Musharraf have ruled out deportation because Bhutto's exile was self-imposed.
Bhutto's timing would have her arriving just after the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which began yesterday, and the three-day festival that marks its completion.
Between now and then, Musharraf is likely to attempt to run for another term as president while remaining military chief. His aides have said he would do so before Oct. 15.
That plan could be derailed by the Supreme Court, which in recent months has demonstrated a newfound independence that was magnified after Musharraf tried and failed to fire Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Next week, the court is to hear a challenge to Musharraf's right to seek re-election while he is army chief of staff, a post he has held since before the coup.
Bhutto's homecoming is to be in Karachi, the country's largest city and the main power base of the Bhutto family. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown as prime minister and then executed in 1979 by another military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Under the broad outlines of any deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, the president would relinquish his military role and her party would support his re-election.
Other likely elements of the agreement would be the support of Musharraf's party for changing the constitution so that Bhutto could serve a third term as prime minister and the dropping of corruption charges against her.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.