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Bhutto's son and husband to lead party

Bilawal Bhutto, 19, would lead the Pakistan People's Party. The party intends to participate in Jan. 8 elections.

By Shahan Mufti – Correspondent, Mark Sappenfield – Staff writer / December 31, 2007


After a weekend of bloodshed and anger in which riots brought Pakistan to a standstill and the presidency of Pervez Musharraf was again plunged into crisis, Benazir Bhutto's husband made an astonishing announcement.

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His son, Bilawal, a 19-year-old college student, would take over for his mother as leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the party was willing to contest elections on Jan. 8 – less than two weeks after Ms. Bhutto's assassination.

"My mother always said democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal told reporters Sunday.

At the close of a weekend in which at least 38 people were killed in rioting aimed predominately at Mr. Musharraf's government, the announcement creates confusion about whether the election will go forward. An official of Musharraf's ruling party had earlier suggested that the vote could be delayed up to four months.

It is both a lifeline and a threat for Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted and whose legitimacy depends in large part on these elections. Yet if elections go ahead Jan. 8, there is the possibility that the PPP could win a massive sympathy vote, making the party a far more potent force than it otherwise would have been.

Musharraf "is in a genuinely difficult spot," says Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at RAND, a strategic consultancy in Arlington, Va.

Already, the nation's anger has turned against him. Since Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27, many have accused Musharraf of negligence, saying he provided minimal security for Bhutto. Others claimed a conspiracy, pointing to the odd statements and actions made by the government since her death – for instance, saying Friday that she was killed, not by bomb or bullet, but by hitting her head on a sunroof lever.

The only logical step, it had seemed, was the postponement of the general elections. "I have never seen Pakistan this much in unison, everyone is devastated," says Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani historian and analyst.

To help his own cause, she says, Musharraf "could delay the polls to allow [Bhutto's] Pakistan People's Party to mourn its leader."

Accordingly, an official of Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q) said yesterday that a postponement of seven to 12 weeks was likely, adding that the vote might not be credible if it is held next week. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's other major opposition party, had already pledged to boycott the vote.

Then came the announcement yesterday from Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, that the PPP would be ready for Jan. 8 elections – and urging Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) not to boycott. Though Bilawal is technically the new PPP chairman, Mr. Zardari is expected to play the role of regent until Bilawal graduates from Oxford University.

Government officials are scheduled to talk to party leaders about the election Monday.

On one hand, Mr. Zardari's willingness to plunge the PPP into Jan. 8 elections suggests that Musharraf's election gambit will not collapse entirely. Even before Bhutto's death, many officials within the PPP wished to boycott the elections, because they believed that the vote would only serve to prop up Musharraf. Under pressure from Washington, Bhutto alone prevented this, and there was the possibility that, with her gone, the PPP would join the PML-N in a massive boycott, making a sham of Musharraf's government.

For the moment, that seems unlikely. Instead, some experts say Zardari now senses unprecedented opportunity in the Jan. 8 elections. The desire to win votes "could definitely be a factor," says Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani ambassador to Syria, now a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.