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.

Zahid Hussein/Reuters
Benazir Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari (l.), and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will head the PPP.
Mustafa Quraishi/AP/File
Dynasties: Rahul Gandhi is being groomed to take over India's Congress Party led by his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is too young to hold elected office and has vowed to finish his education. He is enrolled at Oxford University.

Yet there is little doubt that the party is still firmly in the hands of Asif Zardari. Indeed, there is a sense of ownership in South Asian parties. While families such as the Bushes and Kennedys rose to prominence in American politics, there was no concern of the parties becoming their personal property.

In Pakistan, however, Bhutto's father created the PPP, and, to many Pakistanis, it seems logical for control to pass along family lines.

"In our culture, blood is thicker than water," says Abida Hussain, a PPP leader and former ambassador to the United States. "We are a poor people, and we have not intellectualized enough to have the detachment of Western culture."

Moreover, she says, the Bhutto name transcends Pakistan's regional and ethnic divisions. "Bilawal stands for the unity of the party," she adds. "If the party were to depart from what [Bhutto] wanted, it would atomize."

To some, though, the lack of opportunity for a PPP stalwart like Aitzaz Ahsan is symptomatic of a larger problem in Pakistani politics. The lawyer became hugely popular during the fight to prevent Mr. Musharraf from sacking the chief justice of the Supreme Court last spring – so popular that he is one of the few people who remain under house arrest, weeks after Musharraf's emergency rule ended.

"Because the political system is not running on merit, the emergence of new leadership has become very difficult," says Khalid Rahman, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan. "For the country, this is the problem."

Instead, Pakistani politics is purely about power, experts say. In rural Pakistan, where voters are uneducated, many pledge an almost feudal devotion to their local leaders. These leaders then peddle their vote bank to national parties, promising votes in return for greater clout in the next administration.

Inevitably, they are drawn to the parties with the greatest chance of winning, creating a system that all but shuts out new voices. "They don't have a chance to win," says Dr. Jalal, the historian.

Add to that the stop-and-go nature of Pakistani democracy. Constantly interrupted by successive military dictators, grass-roots politics – the feeder-system for new leadership – has had little chance to take root. Jalal adds: "If the political process was ongoing, there would be greater pressure" welling up from beneath to break the glass ceiling.

That has already happened in India, where numerous regional parties have broken off from the Congress Party.

"There was no opportunity to rise to the top under the Gandhi dynasty,"says Jalal. "That's why they split apart."

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