Bilawal is key to the PPP regaining mass appeal in Pakistan

This is the first time a civilian government has lasted a full five-year term in Pakistan's history

Samira Shackle
Thursday 27 December 2012 20:38
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After years of close scrutiny, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has launched his political career with a speech to thousands of supporters at his ancestral home on the anniversary of his mother Benazir Bhutto's death.

The address was confident and emotionally charged. Peppered liberally with the party's populist Urdu slogans, it made explicit reference to the Bhutto legacy. And that is the crux of the matter.

The Bhutto family is one of the world's most famous (and most troubled) political dynasties. Bilawal's American-educated grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the pro-democracy Pakistan People's Party and became Pakistan's first democratically elected leader, was executed in 1979 after being deposed in a military coup. His wife, Nusrat Bhutto, who assumed control of the PPP, became an immensely popular, though tragic figure. When she died in 2011, she was survived by only one of her four children.

Now, although 24-year-old Bilawal is too young to contest a seat in the general election, expected to take place in May, the PPP hopes that giving him a prominent role in the election campaign will capitalise on the public's emotional connection to the Bhutto name.

This is the first time a civilian government has lasted a full five-year term in Pakistan's history, but the PPP is struggling to defend its record in power. Bilawal's father, President Zardari, faces waning popularity amid widespread allegations of corruption. People in Pakistan frequently remark that the PPP has become the "Zardari party" rather than the "Bhutto party".

However, support for the Bhutto name is not to be underestimated. "I will vote for whoever Bilawal Saab backs because that will be the best candidate," Khaled Mohammed, a resident in a PPP stronghold in Karachi, told me last month – a sentiment shared by hundreds of thousands of voters.

Mr Zardari will continue to act as the party's chief strategist, but bringing his son to the forefront may be the party's best chance at regaining mass appeal.

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