Rocked by political and street chaos since the slaying of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan faces further danger as it braces for crucial Feb. 18 elections, analysts warn.
They point to potential for conflict among a bewildering array of competing groups, from traditional political parties rooted in ethnic and regional rivalries to sectarian extremists and Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda.
The murder of Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty and an eloquent voice for secular democracy, has changed the rules of the game for all who hope to shape the future of the Islamic republic.
"Instability appears to be building into the post-election situation in Pakistan," political analyst Shafqat Mahmood said. "This includes the political status quo in Islamabad, the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination and the political future of President Pervez Musharraf."
Analysts said the new playing field could encourage political rivals to play the ethnic card in an attempt to capitalize on division between Pakistan's Punjabis, Sindhis and Pashtuns.
The country's main ethnic groups are also at odds with the Mohajirs, the Muslim refugees from India after partition, whose most famous exemplar today is Musharraf.
"The assassination has prompted a major sympathy wave for her party and the anti-Musharraf party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif which, if sustained until polling day, could create problems for the pro-Musharraf party," analyst Hasan Askari said.
He said Musharraf loyalists would try to counter support for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in Punjab.
"The PML-Q [which backs Musharraf] plans to aggressively pursue the election campaign and play up the regional ethnic dimension to neutralize the PPP's support in the Punjab," he said. "This could adversely affect inter-provincial relations and cause conflict with the opposition."
Deadly rioting in the immediate aftermath of Bhutto's murder has subsided, but Mahmood said PPP activists could respond violently to any hint of pre-election intimidation from the authorities.
Rumors persist that the government is preparing to round up hundreds of PPP members ahead of the election on charges such as looting and public disorder related to the unrest.
Comments from Musharraf that Bhutto asked for trouble by standing up through the roof of her car, providing a target for her assassins, may fuel anger among her following.
"For standing up outside the car, I think it was she to blame alone. Nobody else. Responsibility is hers," he told CBS television in an interview that was to be broadcast yesterday.
Many in the PPP blame Musharraf for, at best, failing to protect Bhutto after her return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile in October. Some believe the powerful secret intelligence agencies were involved.
Meanwhile fighting between Pakistani forces and Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban continues in the northern region of Swat, where seven members of a family were killed by artillery fire during fighting on Saturday.
Analysts also fear that the approaching holy month of Moharram, from around Jan. 10 to Feb. 8, will see a spike in sectarian violence between minority Shiites and majority Sunnis.
Its status as the holiest month besides the fasting period of Ramadan, particularly for Shiites, has made it a time of sectarian bloodletting through the ages.