Benazir Bhutto's son takes up the family trade in Pakistan

The son of Pakistan's slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, launched his political career Thursday, vowing to continue his mother's fight for democracy.

Press Information Department/AP
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, (l.), raises the hand of his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari during a rally to mark the fifth anniversary of Pakistan's assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto in Garhi Khuda Baksh, Larkana, on Thursday. Bhutto Zardari, 24-year-old son of Bhutto launched his political career Thursday with a fiery speech before thousands of cheering supporters.

Five years after the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari made his first major speech today aimed at galvanizing supporters of the Bhutto family-led Pakistan Peoples Party.

The speech, delivered in the family’s hometown of Garhi Khuda Bux in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, was attended by thousands of party supporters gathered to mark the anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death. Days after her 2007 assassination, the then 19-year-old Bilawal was elected as the party’s chairperson, though his role has been largely symbolic until now.

As Mr. Bhutto Zardari takes a more active role in his party, it is a reminder that Pakistani politics have long been dominated by influential families and that one's position in government is often determined by family ties. 

While many of the Pakistan Peoples Party's voters, particularly in rural areas, are happy that the party is led by Benazir's son, nepotism in politics and government has increasingly become a sore point for urban, middle class voters who are less supportive of the PPP. Of late, most political scandals in Pakistan have involved family members of leading politicians, including the Chief Justice's son, who is accused of taking money from a prominent businessman.

“If you look at any mainstream political party in Pakistan, it is seen as a family business at every level, passed down from father to son – and occasionally daughter – to grandson,” says Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor at Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn. “It is the nature of politics out here. Society puts a premium on personality rather than performance; and so last names matter.”

The Pakistan Peoples Party was founded in 1967 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a charismatic yet controversial leader, who was deposed in a military coup and executed on charges of abetting murder. After he was imprisoned, his widow Nusrat Bhutto led the party, followed by his daughter Benazir, who chaired the party until her death. Though grandson Bilawal was elected to lead the Pakistan Peoples Party, his father Asif Ali Zardari was also elected co-chairperson before he became president of Pakistan in 2008, and has largely run party affairs.

The trend of family-dominated politics is prevalent across the subcontinent.

In India, members of the Gandhi/Nehru dynasty have led the Congress Party and the country as prime ministers for decades. Sheikh Hasina, the twice-elected prime minister of Bangladesh, is the daughter of the country’s founder, and her leading rival Khaleda Zia is the widow of a former president. The other leading political party in Pakistan, the Pakistan Muslim League, features a number of members of the Sharif family in prominent positions, and many major politicians in Pakistan have a similarly strong lineage.

Mr. Almeida points out that in the case of Sindh Province, where the Pakistan Peoples Party has long held sway, there is a “cult of personality and a client-patron relationship in politics,” and Bilawal leading the party was a “a connection to the original person who energized political support.” In some way, he says, the parties are just trying to capture that original energy the name still garners to affect political change.

In his speech, Bhutto Zardari did mention his bloodline, but also reaffirmed the party’s vision, including providing basic needs to every citizen and opposition to terrorist groups. He recalled the assassinations of prominent party leaders such as Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who were killed in 2011 for their opposition to misuse of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Still, says journalist Sohail Warraich, the author of an extensive tome on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and who was on stage as Bhutto Zardari spoke on Thursday, “You have to know how to handle people. Both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto made their way [in] politics” by proving they had what it took to govern, he says.

Mr. Warraich acknowledges there are many challenges ahead for the aspiring politician, despite his name and because of his name: He still has to answer for the PPP-led government’s failures in governance.

“Even abroad, you see the Kennedy family etc, people do have these feelings of attachment toward them [family names]. But the real test is in politics. Benazir, after 1988 [when she became prime minister], was assessed on how she conducted politics, not just because of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,” he says. “Bilawal will also be tested on the same.”

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