ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — It seemed like a moment from another era.
Thousands of exuberant supporters gathered in a field outside the capital on a chilly evening last week, dancing to music, waving banners and cheering loudly as leaders from the Pakistan People’s Party called for democracy and tolerance.
But there was a hollow, haunted tone to the event, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a party that once galvanized poor and working-class Pakistanis, championed socialist causes under its charismatic founder and later fought to restore civilian rule under his equally famous daughter.
They are both long gone now: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the revolutionary prime minister, imprisoned and hanged by a military dictator in 1979; Benazir Bhutto, twice premier, exiled and then assassinated in 2007 as she tried to make a political comeback under another army ruler.
Today, the People’s Party is a shadow of its former tumultuous self, a once-mighty political force that held power repeatedly during three decades but has fallen precipitously in popularity under the leadership of Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari.
The party suffered a crushing defeat in the 2013 national elections, handing power to its longtime rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Today, its influence in Parliament has been reduced to its longtime stronghold, Sindh province. It also faces new competition from the Pakistan Justice Movement, led by cricket star Imran Khan, which has siphoned off much of the youth and labor vote.
A parade of PPP leaders spoke from an outdoor stage on Dec. 5, trying to recapture the party’s past glory and energy. Zardari, who after his wife’s death served as Pakistan’s president from 2008 to 2013, was there, but all eyes were on the couple’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29, the PPP’s new chairman and rising political heir.
Tall, handsome and brimming with confidence, the younger Zardari smiled and waved to the crowd as he stood next to his father, who introduced him and said he believed party members “will be loyal to my children the way you were to Benazir and me.”
Bilawal Zardari vowed that the PPP would not allow Pakistan to move toward Islamic extremism and would carry on the mission of making Pakistan “a true social-democratic state.”
Supporters seemed star-struck.
“We are here for Bilawal, and we believe he will recover the lost destiny of the PPP,” said Yasmeen Bibi, 29, who was dressed in the party’s colors — bright green, red and black. “Look at this huge crowd. Once people were dejected and frustrated, believing the party had met its death. But Bilawal has given us new hope, and God willing, in the next elections, the PPP will win.”
The People’s Party was founded in 1967 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who ruled for most of the 1970s before Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq ousted and executed him. The party’s guiding principles were Islam, democracy and economic socialism, and its idealistic slogan was “Food, shelter and clothing” for all. The party remained popular for years.
But Benazir Bhutto’s assassination 10 years ago, just after she had returned from exile to join the fight against military rule and run for office again, effectively marked the death of the old PPP.
Asif Zardari, widely viewed as a corrupt and aloof tycoon, had neither his wife's charm nor her common touch. His most positive legacy was turning power over to his rival and elected successor, Nawaz Sharif, in 2013, with no controversy or military intervention.
Bilawal Zardari, although struggling to resurrect a now-
tarnished legacy, appears to have a keener and perhaps more genuine knack for politics. The golden jubilee rally came just days after violent religious protests that shocked the country and overwhelmed the government, leaving the army to step in and negotiate an end to the confrontation.
In his speech Dec. 5 and elsewhere last week, the young PPP leader talked about the threat of Islamist extremism, the importance of reestablishing state authority and the need to shore up democracy. Although his party stands little chance of winning elections next year, he declared, “We will establish the writ of the state after coming to power” and listed reforms a PPP government would pursue.
Many observers, though, expressed doubts about whether the young Zardari can revive the fading party, let alone transform it into a vibrant political force again, especially with Khan’s Justice Movement leading the charge against the Muslim League for the 2018 elections.
Newspaper columnist Zahid Hussain last week called the PPP "a tragic spectacle of a dying legacy " whose leaders have become alienated from their longtime grass-roots base. It will take more than "dynastic appeal" and regional popularity, he wrote, to lift the party up.
Some old party hands, such as Safdar Ali Abbasi, said the PPP would have a hard time overcoming the indifferent legacy of Asif Zardari and “getting back to its roots.” But others, such as Sen. Sherry Rehman, said they believe this may be an opportune moment for a new PPP to emerge.
The 50th anniversary, Rehman said, “gives us a chance to amplify our message to the new generation of Pakistanis, who look toward a party with no space for hate.” She conceded that the party had made mistakes but called it “the only political force standing in the way of extremist ideologies. That is a challenge neither we nor Pakistan can walk away from.”