Bhutto’s son issues election warning
By Farhan Bokhari in Naudero and Quentin Peel in London
Published: January 8 2008 15:58 Last updated: January 8 2008 15:58
Asif Zardari, the husband of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s assassinated former prime minister, has emerged as the de facto leader of her Pakistan People’s party as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the couple’s eldest son, warned that his country might fall apart if next month’s elections were rigged.
Nineteen-year-old Bilawal, named as PPP chairman while his father became the party’s co-chairman, is too young to stand for parliament in the forthcoming elections. He will have to wait at least six years before reaching the mandatory age of 25, and said he would assume his leadership role “gradually and carefully”.
But he used a press conference in London to warn that unless the elections were free and fair, Pakistan “may disintegrate”. The poll has been postponed until February 18 after countrywide riots followed his mother’s death.
“I fear for my country,” he said, defending his nomination as leader to succeed Ms Bhutto. “Pakistan was burning, and I did what I was asked to do. I was called, and I stepped up. I took on the position because the party needed a close association with my mother, and a bloodline.
“Politics is also in my blood. Although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn.” He said he would complete his degree at Oxford university, where he has just begun his first year.
As joint chairman of the PPP, Mr Zardari senior has already begun preparations to lead the party into next month’s elections, although other senior members insist he will not be a candidate for prime minister. An important factor against him is that he was accused of corruption during both Ms Bhutto’s terms as prime minister, from 1988-90 and 1993-96. While PPP leaders say none of the corruption cases has been proved, Mr Zardari’s political foes are eager to play up the controversy if he campaigns for high office.
Mr Zardari will return next month to resume the election campaign from the spot where Ms Bhutto died in Rawalpindi, headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment.
“Asif Zardari’s return to politics will be a highly emotional event. His gesture will simply be to pick up the pieces from where they were dropped by Benazir Bhutto and carry on hopefully to an election victory,” said another PPP leader. “Once he [Asif Zardari] begins his campaign, he is bound to see waves of sympathy from people in the field.”
Husain Haqqani, a professor of international studies at Boston University, said: “There is a strong sentimental dimension to politics and that is central to the way PPP supporters praised Benazir Bhutto and her family.”
Mr Haqqani’s defence of the family succession is shared by many on the streets of Pakistan. PPP leaders cite the example of the Gandhi dynasty in neighbouring India, where the late Indira Gandhi was succeeded by her son, Rajiv.
At a time when inflation and growing lawlessness have emerged as key challenges for ordinary Pakistanis, political dynasties are not controversial.
“People of Sindh are so emotional about the Bhutto family that they can even nominate a dog and have it elected to parliament,” said Karim Chandio, a pro-PPP farmer who walked on foot for two days to pray at Ms Bhutto’s grave site.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008