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

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    Hamza Shahbaz Sharif: Son of a former prime minister, he is a candidate in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
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    An Older Generation: Posters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif were for sale in a Lahore market in December.
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    Study abroad: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of Benazir Bhutto, is a student at Oxford University in Britain. At 19, he says he is focused on finishing his education before entering politics.
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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.

"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.

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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.

Elahi: CEO mentality?

For Elahi, it is as obvious as his appearance, which is as precise as a stockbroker's. Elahi presents himself as the eager, fresh-faced reformer – a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business seeking to bring a CEO's mentality to the opaque world of Pakistani politics.

The degree has shaped his political agenda most, he says. When he returned from America to help run his family's sugar factories, for example, "I saw that everything was done more as a favor than on merit," he says. "It was shocking to me.… I couldn't apply a lot of what I had learned."

He has been a controversial figure at times. Opposition leaders allege that he has used his status to his advantage. They have leveled a wide array of charges against him – from hoarding real estate to helping his father steal billions of rupees from Punjab through a front company.

Elahi has denied the charges, claiming he has done everything possible to avoid the appearance of impropriety, turning down bribes himself and constantly monitoring his staff. Whatever the truth, it is the sort of mudslinging endemic to politics here, says Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily News, a Lahore-based national newspaper.

"There's always talk, but there's never any evidence," he says. "If it wasn't about him, it would be about some other chap."

Sharif: need for tolerance

For his part, Sharif has seen firsthand how deep political rivalries go in Pakistan – and how they can change lives. At 19, he was imprisoned for six months, the result of a political feud against his family, he says. Then, seven years later, the rest of his family was exiled by Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif's uncle in a bloodless coup.

From 2000 until late last year, when his family returned, he was the only representative of the Sharif family in Pakistan. "For five years, I was not allowed to meet my mother … and eight years I spent without my family," he says. "How can you give eight years back to a person?"

He saw the same things in jail as a teenager, watching mothers and sisters who waited in the heat for hours to see their sons and brothers in prison "but didn't have the money to bribe someone."

"There is a great gap between the haves and have-nots," he says. "These things really touched my heart."

Though also schooled abroad, receiving a bachelor's degree in law from the London School of Economics, he presents a less polished image than does Elahi. While Elahi looks the part of politician – clearly excited by the prospect – Sharif's reticence is evident.

In 2002, he declined to run for a provincial or national seat despite his father's exhortations. Now, with his younger brother overseeing the family business and his father and uncle again off the ballot, he says his time has come.

Drawing from his own experience, he recites what he thinks Pakistan needs most: First, the restoration of the judges that Musharraf sacked during his emergency rule, and second, the ability to separate politics from personality.

For more than a decade, he notes, his uncle and Benazir Bhutto were bitter enemies. But in the days before her assassination, he adds, "Benazir Bhutto would call my uncle several times a week."

It was, to him, a glimpse of what Pakistan could be. "There has to be an atmosphere of tolerance – it should not turn into personal animosity," he says. "In a democracy, you have to tolerate criticism if it will make you wiser."

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