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Family dynasty fills Bhutto vacuum in Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto's party named her son and husband as new leaders, following a South Asian tradition of keeping political power in the family.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2008

Benazir Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari (l.), and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will head the PPP.

Zahid Hussein/Reuters

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NEW DELHI

In bequeathing a 19-year-old son and a husband beset by charges of corruption the reins of her party, Benazir Bhutto went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that control of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) remained in family hands.

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The very mode of the declaration Sunday would be unheard of by the Western standards of election war rooms and party caucuses. But it is quintessential South Asia, where many parties are not breeding grounds of new talent but fiefdoms structured to uphold a family dynasty.

The same is true in India, where Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi is grooming her son, Rahul, to take over the party. In all, the nation has been ruled by one of the Gandhi-Nehru clan for 37 of its 60 years.

This is partly the product of the peculiarities of South Asian politics, where elections are often won less on ideology than on traditional allegiances, particularly in Pakistan. It has meant that, even in Ms. Bhutto's death, there is little space for new blood – creating a political glass ceiling for anyone outside the family line.

"Despite all the talk of democracy, within parties there is no democracy," says Ayesha Jalal, a South Asia historian at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "This is a contradiction."

In one of his first acts as cochairman of the PPP, Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said the party was ready to contest Jan. 8 elections. The decision was made largely to capitalize on what could be a significant sympathy vote, experts say.

The Pakistan Election Commission was scheduled to decide Tuesday whether the vote would go forward on time. Political offices in some parts of Pakistan were burned during the rioting that followed Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27, destroying local voter lists. This could compromise elections, forcing a delay, officials have said.

But experts also suggest that the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf might seek to delay the vote in hopes that the swell of support for Bhutto will wane.

What is certain is that even if the PPP wins the elections, neither Mr. Zardari nor he and Bhutto's son, Bilawal, will be prime minister. Zardari has chosen not to run for a seat in parliament and will instead run the party from the background, much as Ms. Gandhi is doing in India.

Zardari is a controversial figure, having spent 11 years in prison for corruption. During Bhutto's time as prime minister, he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent" allegedly for demanding kickbacks on government contracts.

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