By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 31, 2007
KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec. 30 -- Pakistan's largest and most storied political party chose Sunday to continue its dynastic traditions, anointing the 19-year-old son of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to be her ultimate successor but picking her husband to lead for now.
The selections mean that the Pakistan People's Party, which casts itself as the voice of democracy in Pakistan, will stay in family hands for a third generation.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who had largely been shielded from the spotlight by his mother and has not lived in Pakistan since he was a young boy, will lead the party when he finishes his studies at Oxford University.
Speaking briefly but forcefully at a news conference in the Bhutto family's ancestral home, he said he would strive to honor his mother's legacy. "The party's long and historic struggle will continue with renewed vigor," he said. "My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."
Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, whose reputation has long been tainted by corruption charges, will run the party for at least the next several years. He said Sunday that the succession strategy reflected the wishes of his wife, who died in a gun-and-bomb attack at a rally Thursday afternoon.
The party's new leaders -- neither of whom had been a major player in Pakistani politics -- take over at an especially turbulent time for the country, with elections on the horizon and President Pervez Musharraf clinging to power amid widespread unrest.
Asif Zardari quickly announced that the party will compete in the parliamentary vote scheduled for Jan. 8. Another opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, indicated it will do the same.
But Musharraf allies strongly hinted that the election would be postponed, possibly for months. "Delaying the election is very much in the cards," said Tariq Azim Khan, information secretary for the major pro-Musharraf party. "If you ask me personally if I would go ahead, I would say it would be unfair to go out and campaign in these sad times."
Although the Bush administration pressed Pakistani leaders last week to keep to the election schedule, the State Department said Sunday that it had no objections to a slight postponement.
"If the people on the ground think this is not the time for an election, that is fine," said spokesman Robert McInturff. "But we would want to see an alternative date. We do not want to see an indefinite delay."
Bhutto's killing Thursday was followed by unrest across the country, as rioting broke out in major cities as well as small villages. The atmosphere remained tense Sunday, with army deployments in several key areas, but the violence eased. Still, Bhutto's legions of supporters continued to blame Musharraf for her death.
Zardari called Sunday for the United Nations to lead an international inquiry into his wife's killing, while conceding that he had declined to give Pakistani officials permission to conduct an autopsy. "Their forensic reports are useless," he said angrily, calling the suggestion of an autopsy "an insult to my wife, to the sister of the nation, to the mother of the nation."
The Bhuttos are often compared to the Kennedys because of their tendency toward charismatic leaders who meet tragic ends. Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, himself a former prime minister, was hanged in 1979 by the military dictator who overthrew him. Her two brothers died in mysterious and violent circumstances.
The young man representing the newest generation of Bhuttos -- who added the famous name for the first time Sunday -- indicated he is acutely aware of that record, saying the chairmanship of the Pakistan People's Party is a position "that often is occupied by martyrs."
Nonetheless, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said he planned to return to Pakistan after he graduates from Oxford "to lead the party as my mother wanted me to."
Asif Zardari, meanwhile, left no doubt Sunday that he will be in charge in the interim. He pointedly asked reporters not to address questions to his son, and he lashed out at Musharraf's allies, calling them "the killer party."
Zardari, who wed Benazir Bhutto in an arranged marriage in 1987, is a controversial choice to lead the party, and some insiders worry it could fracture. During his wife's two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s, he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for his reputation for taking money off the top of government deals. He served an extended jail sentence under Musharraf that stemmed from the alleged corruption.
"Zardari is not very much liked in the party. He goes for big hotels, world's best addresses. He wants to live like a prince abroad," said Rafiq Safi, a longtime party activist.
Zardari also has many critics in Western capitals, including Washington, which could further complicate U.S. hopes that Musharraf and the PPP might form a coalition that would unify moderate forces in Pakistan against extremism. "The U.S. is not going to be excited about working with Zardari," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the pressure to keep the party's leadership in family hands was intense, reflecting the unorthodox nature of the PPP as a party for the impoverished masses that is largely run by a collection of wealthy landlords -- the Bhutto family being by far the most prominent.
For true believers in the magic of the Bhutto name, people who are not members of the clan are ineligible to lead. Even Zardari is viewed with suspicion because he came to the family through marriage, not blood.
"There's something wrong with the region," said former party official Makhdoom Khaleeq Zaman, referring to the South Asian tendency for political dynasties. "It's not very democratic."
While Benazir Bhutto was groomed to lead the party by her father, it is unclear whether her son went through the same training.
His birth in 1988 -- on the eve of elections that Bhutto won, making her the first female prime minister of a Muslim nation -- generated headlines around the world. But after that, she took great pains to guard his privacy. He largely grew up in exile in London and Dubai, and little is known about him outside the family.
In her autobiography, Bhutto described the birth of her first child, calling him "the most celebrated and politically controversial baby in the history of Pakistan."
"There were congratulatory gunshots being fired outside the hospital, the beating of drums" and cries of "Long live Bhutto," she wrote.
On Sunday, when Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was reintroduced to the world, dozens of emotional party activists repeated that cheer and added a new one: "Bilawal, move forward! We are with you."
Correspondent Emily Wax in Islamabad, staff writer Robin Wright in Washington and special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.