Pakistan's fêted son anticipates his days as a dynastic democrat
Heir to bloody political legacy set to take over
Amid the ultra-tight security that will see all mobile phones and liquids banned from the room, President Asif Ali Zardari will address more than 2,000 British Pakistanis in Birmingham on Saturday. Officially, the speech is to shore up the Pakistani leader's support in Britain but the real reason for his appearance will be the young man sitting beside him in a smart suit.
Until early this summer, the habitual environment of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of President Zardari and his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been the sandstone quads of Oxford's Christ Church College where the young undergraduate studied for a history degree and followed in his revered mother's footsteps by joining the Oxford Union.
But while the weeks immediately following finals exams normally present new graduates with a chance to take it easy on a foreign beach or worry about paying off their heavy debts, Bilawal is stepping straight into the political limelight as a novice 21-year-old statesman and the heir apparent to a wealthy political dynasty with an unending talent for bloody internecine strife.
The gathering of Mr Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in Hall 3 of Birmingham's International Convention Centre is widely billed as the formal launch of Bilawal's political career following his graduation from Oxford with a freshly-minted 2:1 degree.
It is a career which senior PPP figures have publicly stated they want to see culminating in the young man becoming his embattled country's prime minister, a post held twice by his mother to both the acclaim and disgust of her fellow Pakistanis.
Embroiled in long-standing corruption allegations which earned him the nickname "Mr Ten Per Cent" and unease over his strategy in dealing with terrorism, Mr Zardari is badly in need of a boost to his support among influential British Pakistanis and is expected to announce that he is handing sole control of the PPP to his son. As one source put it: "What better way of dealing with the critics than unveiling an unblemished replacement?"
Waheed Rasab, the PPP's co-ordinator for the UK and the European Union, insisted the Birmingham meeting – which will be attended by more than 2,500 people – was primarily a chance for British Pakistanis to hear directly from Mr Zardari, whose reputed personal fortune is put at £1bn.
But he added: "Bilawal has been brought up by his mother, he embodies her values. He believes in a democratic Pakistan but it is a tough country in which to survive."
Ever since the murder of his mother in a bomb blast during the 2007 presidential elections, Bilawal has been quietly groomed for power.
At a hasty press conference in the basement of a Knightsbridge hotel within days of Mrs Bhutto's death, her son was appointed co-chairman of the PPP with his father and vowed to take on the family business of politics once he had completed his education.
Noting his mother's assertion that "democracy is the best revenge", Bilawal announced he was taking on her name before saying: "When I return, I promise to lead the party as my mother wanted me to."
President Zardari, who arrived in Britain last night at the start of a five-day tour – to a backdrop of heavy criticism of his decision to go ahead with the visit when three million Pakistanis are stricken by flooding – has made clear his determination to thrust his son into global politics. As the Pakistani leadership emerged from the Elysée Palace in Paris yesterday, it was Bilawal who stood beside his father during the official photocall with President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bilawal was also chosen to accompany his father to an important meeting with Barack Obama last May, after which the US president declared himself impressed by the then student's "talent and prudence". Even for a young man as precociously self-assured and mild mannered as the young Mr Bhutto Zardari, the expectations placed upon him are perhaps dangerously high.
A senior PPP member in Pakistan told The Independent: "Bilawal was a shy young man when his mother died. Now he is in a position to talk to the most powerful people in the world.
"We have started our work well but there is much to be done. It is not going too far to say that we consider him to be the best hope for Pakistan's political future."
All of which is a far cry from the world of Oxford nightclubs and Facebook posts that had until recently punctuated Bilawal's existence, complete with round-the-clock protection by officers from Scotland Yard's diplomatic protection squad.
To raised eyebrows back home, the only son of Mrs Bhutto used his social networking account to discuss attending off-beat nightspots, the joys of "free alcohol" and his friendship with a girl called Boozie Suzie.
Although there is no suggestion that Bilawal drinks alcohol, friends at Oxford said he had made the most of an informal agreement to complete his degree beyond the scrutiny of the media. One friend said: "He was well-liked and charismatic. I think he knew this was his chance to live life a little before taking on the burden of a political career. He definitely has a strong sense of duty. He would post quotations from his mother on his Facebook. He once said 'it is me or the Taliban'."
It is understood that Bilawal, who cannot become an MP in Pakistan until he is 25, will now spend his time between Dubai, where he spent much of his childhood while his father was in prison on corruption charges, and Pakistan, as he begins an ascent to power.
It is a journey already steeped in the blood of his forebears. Bilawal's grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the PPP, was hanged in 1979 on the orders of Pakistan's military dictatorship while his uncle, Murtaza, was shot dead by police outside his home. Mr Zardari was accused of ordering Murtaza's murder with the blessing of his wife but was later cleared of involvement in the killing.
On Saturday afternoon, a new member of the Bhutto clan will step forward to accept that strangest of modern political roles – the dynastic democrat. In his only previous public speech, Bilawal said: "We must guarantee the freedoms of speech, assembly and all other freedoms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This will create an environment where no dictatorship can ever thrive."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the staunchest criticism of Bilawal's chosen career should come from within his own family. Fatima Bhutto, a daughter of Murtaza Bhutto and Bilawal's cousin, said yesterday: "I think the idea that the future of the PPP, which after all is a people's party, or that of Pakistan, is going to be saved by a single family is what has landed us in this mess in the first place."
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