A large cardboard cutout of assassinated president Ziaur Rahman was suspended over the podium at a political rally here this week, dominating the proceedings. At an opposition party rally the day before, murals dramatizing Sheik Mujibur Rahman's role in Bangladesh's independence struggle dominated the same podium.

The ghosts of these two assassinated presidents -- Mujibur, the father of the country, and Zia, the vibrant young leader who tried to lift Bangladesh from abject poverty -- haunt Sunday's election to pick a successor to Zia, who was slain May 30 in what appeared to be a coup attempt but now is described as an Army mutiny.

Zia's picture appears prominently on all the posters of his ruling Bangladesh National Party along with the candidate, 76-year-old former Supreme Court justice Abdus Sattar. The appointed vice president, Sattar took over the government immediately after Zia's assassination and avoided both an expected military coup and complete chaos as he steered Bangladesh through the difficult transition period.

Similarly, Mujibur's picture dominates posters of his Awami League party, with the candidate, former foreign minister Kamal Hossain, taking a lesser place. Mujibur's daughter, Sheik Hasina Wazed, the party president, has emerged as a major figure on the capaign trail, urging the party faithful to revenge her father's death by electing Kamal.

Sunday's election is crucial for Bangladesh, which under Zia had been striving to climb from its position as the third poorest nation in the world to achieve a limited economic viability.

Separated from Pakistan in a bloody civil war led by Mujibur in 1971, Bangladesh is actually poorer now than it was when it was ruled by Great Britain as part of imperial India. It is one one of the world's most densely populated nations, with its 90 million persons crowded on so little land that it is equivalent to the entire population of the earth being settled in the United States.

According to a wide variety of Western and Bangladeshi political observers interviewed here this week, Sattar, the man running under the mantle of Zia, appears to have the edge. In a poll published last week, the Sunday Star newspaper predicted that Sattar would get 57 percent of the vote, compared to 35 for Kamal.

"The victory of Justice Sattar is as sure now as two months ago," said the English-language daily newspaper, The New Nation, in a front page commentary on the election. It supported neither of the two major parties and said Sattar would win because the people see no reason to upset the status quo.

Although predicting South Asian elections is chancy at best, local journalists and Western observers who closely follow Bangladesh politics agree with that estimate.

There is concern, however, that the Awami League might stage massive street demonstrations if it loses. It is known as an action-oriented party with loyal grass-roots workers, and both Sheik Hasina and Kamal have warned against the possibility of the government rigging the election in favor of Sattar and the disruption that could follow.

Sheik Hasina accused the government at the a news conference yesterday of using "dirty tricks," such as harassing Awami League supporters, to win the election.

A further worry is that the Army might move in, especially if the government appears threatened by demonstrations.

The Army, however, has steered clear of politics and its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad, has pledged to support the constitutional government. But he has said in interviews that the Army should be involved in running Bangladesh to prevent future coups.

Despite those concerns, the election campaign has gone smoothly. There has been an extremely low level of violence -- only five persons have been killed so far -- for the usually volatile politics practiced here.

The election drew about 80 candidates, but that number has been whittled down to 30 by dropouts. Part of the incentive to run was the expensive benefits the government provides candidates, including free phones, use of a car and driver and free airline and train tickets for trips around the country.

Both Sattar and Kamal staged massive rallies here this week as climaxes to the campaign, which officially ends at midnight Friday.

The Awami League drew about 300,000 people, shouting the party slogan "Joi Bangla" (Victory to Bangladesh), to the place where Zia's funeral had been held just five months before.

"Return power to the people from who it was snatched away by an autocratic regime," said Kamal, dwarfed by the huge murals of Mujibur behind him, as he attacked the Zia government for what he called its one-man rule.

In the style of political candidates the world over, Kamal neglected to mention that when Mujibur was assassinated in 1975, his reputation as the father of Bangladesh had been tarnished by the excesses of a rule in which he had aggregated all the powers of government into his hands and set up a private army of political enforcers.

These excesses, according to many Bangladeshis, are well remembered here and contribute to what appears to be widespread distrust of the Awami League.

Sattar attracted an even larger crowd, estimated at about 400,000, to the same site the next day. Thousands of cheering and shouting Bangladeshis were brought by buses and trucks to the rally in what was seen here as a practical illustration of the power the governing party has in an election campaign.

The Awami League is favored in the cities, but Bangladeshi and Western political observers here believe that Zia's continued popularity in the countryside will carry the election for Sattar.