ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Unpopular and unwell, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is determined not to be written off just yet.
Last week, with political pressure mounting from all sides, Zardari flew to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, for medical treatment. As rumors swirled that he was fleeing or being ousted by the military, he swiftly played his trump card — the fact that he remains the father of Benazir Bhutto’s children and, for now at least, the guardian of that inheritance.
No sooner had Zardari left the country than the couple’s only son, 23-year-old Bilawal, was thrust into the limelight, appearing in front of the cameras here to co-chair a high-level meeting of his Pakistan People’s Party, alongside Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
It was a move designed to shore up his father’s power base, analysts said, and reassure his supporters that the Zardari-Bhutto family was not about to be pushed aside easily, either by the military or by dissenters within their own party.
“It was designed to send a signal to the party that Zardari may be unwell but the party leadership remains with him via his son,” said newspaper editor Cyril Almeida. “It could also have been a preemptive move to prevent any cracks in the party emerging. It sends a powerful message that the Bhuttos are here. The future leader of the party is before you, so you try to create trouble within the party at your own peril.”
The 2007 assassination of Bhutto, a former prime minister and PPP leader, paved the way for Zardari’s election as president and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s taking over as the nominal co-chairman of the party. But the son returned to Britain to complete his studies at Oxford University.
He is still too young even to contest an election — the minimum age in Pakistan is 25 — so his role will remain somewhat limited. For now, his father and his father’s inner circle will still call the shots, political analysts said.
But questions about Zardari’s long-term health and heart problems have raised the specter of a more rushed succession than originally planned.
“Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has finished his academic education and is now receiving political education,” said party spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Although there has been no official word on his illness, party officials say Zardari, 56, may have suffered a transient ischemic attack, which can produce stroke-like symptoms but causes no lasting damage to the brain.
Babar said the president was “stable and recovering” Monday and would return as soon as his doctors gave him the go-ahead. But Gilani told the BBC late Sunday that Zardari needed more rest and could be out of the country for two more weeks.
Zardari insists he has no plans to leave office yet.
“Those that run from the country run with their kids,” Zardari reportedly told a news anchor by telephone Friday. “My son is in Pakistan. I left him there. My enemies will be disappointed.”
In the longer term, the younger Zardari is an attractive option for the PPP for several reasons, including the sympathy his mother’s fate garners, but also his youth — in a country experiencing a surge in the number of young people of voting age. He also speaks well in English, although, like his mother and grandfather as they emerged in politics, he is still working on his command of Urdu and Sindhi, one newspaper reported Monday.
However, not everyone in the party thinks that the young man is ready for an enhanced role or that the PPP was wise to thrust him forward so early. Bilawal Zardari is said to be shy, and there are questions about how keen he is on a future in politics.
“It is a bit premature, launching him into the murky politics of Pakistan when the government is in quite a bit of trouble,” said Safdar Abbasi, a party official who was close to Benazir Bhutto but has been somewhat sidelined by Zardari.
“Frankly, I don’t think it is prudent politics. They have panicked and put him in a politically difficult situation.”
Pakistan’s economy is in a mess, facing widespread gas and electricity shortages. The government also has been widely criticized for its response to floods last year and this year.
The latest scandal revolves around an unsigned memo that solicited Washington’s help to rein in Pakistan’s powerful military and prevent a possible coup in the days after the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in May. Amid accusations that the memo had Zardari’s backing, Pakistan’s Supreme Court is conducting an investigation. It has called for written depositions from the president and the army and intelligence chiefs by Dec. 15.
Whether Zardari’s prolonged absence is entirely due to his health or is in part a convenient ploy to see how the Supreme Court probe unfolds has been openly debated here. But there has been no sign that Zardari is inclined to stay away for good.
Bilawal Zardari tends to eschew the Western suits his father prefers, dressing instead in baggy Pakistani garb with a round cap typical of his native province of Sindh, the stronghold of his party. His appearance in a Sindhi cap this week was a reminder to the military, analysts said, of the popular support for the family in the huge southern province.
But Bilawal Zardari is still an unknown quantity politically, and so far he has declined to speak to the media. Local newspapers reported last week that he was unhappy with his father’s “watered-down” response to the assassination of politician and businessman Salman Taseer by a religious extremist in January, but he has not made his views widely known publicly.