ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Less than two weeks before this country's crucial Feb. 18 elections, the man who supplanted slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan's most widely known politician has left the country.
It's a peculiar absence in the middle of a political campaign, but one that reflects a growing belief that the upcoming election likely will be plagued by widespread vote rigging and fraud.
Nawaz Sharif, a two-time former prime minister, went to the United Arab Emirates this week, apparently to be with his wife as she underwent surgery in Dubai. The chairman of Sharif's political party, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, downplayed the importance of any campaign at this point anyway.
"There will be vast rigging," Zafar-ul-Haq said. "I think there will be chaos, a serious public reaction afterward."
In Dubai, Sharif told reporters that he expected the vote to be "a farce" and holds no hope for a free and fair vote.
Sharif, 58, is the politician with the highest stature in Pakistan following the assassination in late December of Bhutto, with whom he alternated terms as prime minister during much of the 1990s.
He's a bitter adversary of President Pervez Musharraf, who toppled him from power eight years ago and later threw him in jail. U.S. officials have cited Musharraf repeatedly in recent months as "indispensable" in the global fight against Islamic terrorism.
Analysts say Sharif expects post-election tumult to force Musharraf from power and a period of political confusion to ensue.
"He's not banking on this election," said Zahid Hussain, a journalist and author of Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam. "He's trying to create conditions for Musharraf to leave power. That's his main objective. He feels another election will take place soon, maybe within six months or a year's time."
Sharif's and Musharraf's distaste for one another dates to Sharif's last period as prime minister, which lasted from Feb. 17, 1997, until Oct. 12, 1999, when he was overthrown.
Sharif had tried to avert the coup by blocking an airliner carrying Musharraf, then the army commander, from landing at Karachi airport on its return from Sri Lanka. But the airliner landed anyway, and Musharraf and his army followers succeeded in toppling Sharif, immediately throwing him in jail.
Courts handed Sharif a life sentence for conspiracy to hijack an airliner. He later was allowed to flee with his family to exile in Saudi Arabia. The court barred him from politics for a decade.
Sharif's supporters say the legal bar eventually will be overturned in court because Sharif is the only person convicted of taking part in the conspiracy.
"For a conspiracy, you can't just have one person. It's a legal joke," said Zafar-ul-Haq.
In one of the few recent interviews he's given during the campaign, Sharif told Dawn Television this week that Musharraf's political party, the PML-Q League, will win almost no support at the polls.
"There's not one iota of doubt in my mind that Musharraf will not win the election," Sharif said, adding that he'd "be surprised if it gets more than two percent of the vote."
Sharif's lowballing of the Q League's chances in the election may be because Bhutto's People's Party may reap a large sympathy vote and his own party may not do so well, some observers say. Like other politicians, Sharif is limiting campaign activity out of rational fear they may be targets of political violence or terrorism.
In an image-buffing trip to Europe late last month, Musharraf pledged that the country would enjoy free, fair and peaceful elections. He warned, though, that difficulties might occur if political parties don't accept the results.
Pollsters say that food and energy shortages, combined with rising terrorism, have made Musharraf unpopular. A Gallup Poll conducted in December, before the
Bhutto assassination on Dec. 27, found that 68 percent of voters wanted Musharraf to step down.
The same Gallup poll also helps explain the national gloom that has cloaked the country despite the prospect of elections. The poll found that only 15 percent of voters expect the vote to be free and fair, while 53 percent said it would be rigged. The rest could not give a definite answer.
"I've never seen such a lackluster campaign," said Hussain, the journalist. "It's really clear that people don't trust the elections. The death of Benazir Bhutto has really cast a huge shadow over the process."