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Pakistan's political future? It's all in the family.

Three political clans introduce the next generation of leaders.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Hamza Shahbaz Sharif: Son of a former prime minister, he is a candidate in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

Vincent Thian/AP

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Lahore, Pakistan

Hamza Shahbaz Sharif looks almost wistful as he considers why he decided to run for a parliamentary seat in the elections scheduled for Feb. 18.

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"You know, in all these third-world countries, the whole family gets dragged into politics," he says.

As the nephew of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the son of Shahbaz Sharif, former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most powerful province, he speaks from experience. And his words have a particular resonance in this election campaign.

In a country where politics is a birthright and power is often an inheritance, Pakistan's three greatest political clans are introducing their next generations.

The most famous, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who is 19, was named chairman of Pakistan's largest political party after his mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December. But he is enrolled at Oxford University and cannot run for office for six years.

By contrast, Hamza is the only Sharif with his name on the ballot this February, since both his father and uncle have been banned – a legacy of their feud with President Pervez Musharraf, he says. Meanwhile, Moonis Elahi – whose father is mentioned as Mr. Musharraf's favored choice for prime minister – is seeking a seat in the Punjab Assembly.

Both are in their early 30s, but are distinct characters – Mr. Sharif modest and earnest in a garishly orange jacket, Mr. Elahi full of purpose and youthful panache in a suit coat and designer loafers.

But together they embody the future of Pakistani politics, both its promise and its problems.

In separate interviews, the two men come across as open, frank, and idealistic – a blend of their Pakistani roots and Western ideals gained from studying abroad. The question for them, as well as Pakistan, is whether they and the new generation they will lead are earnest in their desire to recast the nation's politics of corruption and divisiveness or whether they will merely be consumed by it.

"People say, 'This is the way things are done in Pakistan,' " says Elahi. "If I can't [change] that, there's no point in me staying in politics."

For Mr. Bhutto Zardari, this election has come too soon. Because of Bilawal's youth, his father, Asif Zardari, will run the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) for the foreseeable future. In Bhutto Zardari's public press conference, held in London on his way back to Oxford, he freely admitted that he was not yet ready for politics.

"Although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn," he said. "Unless I can finish my education and develop enough maturity, I recognize that I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena."

More than 10 years older than Bhutto Zardari, Sharif and Elahi have already gone through that transformation, though in different ways. How they arrived at this moment – becoming the candidates their bloodline always suggested they would be – has deeply influenced what they hope to accomplish in the future.