Ignoring calls to boycott general elections, former Pakistan Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have hit the campaign trail with a vengeance, pledging to overcome obstacles that come their way.
"As it became clear who will contest and who will stay away from the Jan 8 elections for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies, the country's most popular leaders chose different provinces to launch their campaigns with big rallies, leaving political casualties among both friends and foes," the Dawn newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Two major opposition alliances have practically broken up in the past few days as smaller parties and pressure groups failed to persuade the main players to boycott the polls they fear will be rigged, and the presence of Bhutto and Sharif in the fray could also cause unease in the erstwhile ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that fears defections from its ranks.
The campaign had been a dull affair until Sharif told the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) on Sunday that his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will not leave the field clear for the PML or for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
The situation then changed dramatically as Sharif lost no time and plunged into the campaign the very next day by addressing a rally in Faisalabad. This left the APDM with no option but to expel the PML-N, as also the Awami National Party and another smaller group from the alliance that had been the former prime minister's brainchild.
The next casualty was the six-party Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) religious alliance that also virtually broke up. This was because the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), whose chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed is also the alliance president, stuck to the APDM boycott call while its main component, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, refused to stay away from the polls.
"As if she was waiting for the break-up of the two alliances she did not like, Bhutto returned on Tuesday from a brief visit to Dubai, praising the PML-N shift to her thinking and immediately went to Mardan in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province) to address her first election rally there," Dawn noted.
"The PPP and PML-N decisions disappointed not only some of their political allies but also many in the civil society such as lawyers who wanted some pre-conditions to be met, such as the restoration of about 60 judges of the Supreme Court and the four provincial high courts who were sacked with the imposition of emergency by President Pervez Musharraf on Nov 3," it added.
According to political analysts, Bhutto and Sharif, whom Musharraf had sidelined in the 2002 elections, were playing realpolitik while keeping the option open to bring their supporters onto the streets to agitate if the authorities repeated the 2002 rigging.
While it is likely to pick up in the coming days, the campaign will be devoid of the processions that the political parties have taken out in the past to mobilise and demonstrate public support for themselves.
The authorities have cited security concerns and law and order as grounds for banning the processions - but opposition parties say the real aim is to deny mainstream parties an opportunity to put on a show of force that could influence voters.