Pakistan was poised to lift emergency rule on Saturday, but critics said it might make little difference for an opposition complaining President Pervez Musharraf can still engineer an election win for his allies.
With January 8 parliamentary elections only weeks away, restrictions on media and the judiciary still stacked the cards in favour of Musharraf and his caretaker government, opposition members and political analysts said.
Musharraf imposed the emergency on November 3, suspended the constitution and purged the Supreme Court to fend off challenges to his re-election, which new hand-picked judges have since rubber-stamped.
Under international pressure, including from his ally the United States, Musharraf said he would restore the constitution in a move that Western countries hope will bring stability to a nuclear-armed state facing growing Islamic militant violence.
"The lifting is just an ornamental thing," said Khawaja Harris, a senior lawyer working with opposition leader and former prime minister Nawiz Sharif.
"In the meantime, Musharraf has set the rules of the game and everything he wanted to install is already in place."
Several judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who were deposed by Musharraf are still being held under house arrest. The Pakistani media criticised this week a ban on live broadcasts as an attempt to control election coverage.
That will not change after the end of the emergency, political commentators say.
Election monitors say the caretaker administration, from the central government to district level, can fix the result and Sharif and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's opposition parties have said the government has the power to rig votes.
Critics say the unpopular Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief last month, faces pressure to avoid losing because an opposition-run parliament could move to impeach him over accusations he acted unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.
"The detention of lawyers, the absence of a level-playing field and the ability of the election commission to enforce a code of ethics will not change," said political analyst Nasim Zehra.
For many Pakistanis, the lifting of the emergency would change little in a country where economic problems and a violent militant insurgency are main worries.
"There were suicide bombings before the emergency and there are suicide bombings even now," said Mohammad Ramzan, an auto-rickshaw driver in the southeastern city of Multan. "Our concern is whether we will have a meal at the end of the day."
The election is essentially a three-way battle between parties loyal to Musharraf and the parties of two main opposition leaders, former prime ministers Bhutto and Sharif.
Sharif, who has been barred from standing because of past criminal convictions he says were politically motivated, released his manifesto on Friday and called for the restoration of sacked judges and the elimination of the military from politics.
With political rallies currently banned, parties have been holding what they call smaller "meetings" to get round the regulations. There is some hope bigger rallies would be allowed as the campaign gets into gear.
Critics are worried about any decree to give Musharraf protection from attempts in courts to prosecute him for breaking the constitution -- a move that has been carried out before by rulers in Pakistan's long history of military interference.
Farahatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party, said his party was opposed to any such amendments.
"One of the most important amendments to my mind, although it has not been stated so, is he will say all his actions will be indemnified and make his actions beyond the purview of the parliament."
(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel and Asim Tanveer; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)