Bhutto legacy passed to son

Bilawal Zardari, 19, to co-lead party as election is pressed

December 31, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Acting in accordance with her last wishes, Benazir Bhutto's party named her 19-year-old son as its ceremonial leader and her husband as the executor of its day-to-day affairs as violence that had flared in Pakistan after her assassination subsided yesterday.

The decision to bypass experienced senior politicians in the party hierarchy showed the slain opposition leader's steely determination to posthumously ensure the continuation of one of the country's most enduring political dynasties, even though her son is too young to contest office and her husband is shadowed by corruption allegations.

The move, three days after his mother's assassination, thrust into the spotlight Bilawal Zardari, a young man whom Bhutto had kept out of the public eye as much as possible during an upbringing that came almost exclusively outside Pakistan.

Dark-haired, slender and composed, the Oxford history student bears a striking resemblance, both in looks and demeanor, to his mother.

Underscoring the weight of his legacy, Bhutto's son, who has two younger sisters, was introduced at a news conference in his ancestral home village of Naudero as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the first public use of his maternal surname.

"The party's long struggle for democracy will continue with renewed vigor," he said, speaking in even-toned, lightly British-accented English. "My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."

Although there is generally warm sentiment toward Bilawal Zardari, his father is a far more polarizing figure. In the eyes of many of Bhutto's admirers, Asif Ali Zardari, whom she wed in an arranged marriage, has tarnished her legacy.

A Cabinet minister in Bhutto's two administrations as prime minister, Zardari subsequently spent eight years in prison on corruption charges. Although he has denied all allegations, so widespread was his reputation for taking kickbacks that he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent."

In passing the political torch to Bhutto's son and husband, her Pakistan People's Party pointedly refrained from seeking any delay in the parliamentary election scheduled to take place Jan. 8. The country's Election Commission, controlled by supporters of President Pervez Musharraf, is to announce a decision today about the timing of the vote.

Analysts said moving ahead swiftly with the polling would allow Bhutto's party to capitalize on what could be a large sympathy vote in addition to the party's already formidable voter base. That, they said, could more than make up for whatever organizational disadvantages the party would suffer due to disarray in the wake of its leader's death.

Because neither the father or son will run for office, the party's candidate for prime minister, in the event of victory, would likely be Bhutto's deputy, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who stood in for her during her years of exile.

With Bhutto's party saying it would join the elections, the party of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said it would almost certainly field candidates as well. Sharif, another former prime minister, had said after Bhutto was killed Thursday that his party would boycott the poll, but he had previously reversed threats when Bhutto's party refused to join in a boycott call.

Zardari, Bhutto's husband, said the party was determined to participate in the elections "despite this dangerous situation" because that was his late wife's wish. Emotional supporters invoked her name again and again, chanting, "Benazir, princess of heaven."

Senior aides to Musharraf have indicated that the Election Commission would likely accede to the wishes of Bhutto's party in regard to the election date. It would be politically difficult for the government to force a delay if the other parties are prepared to go ahead.

Yesterday was the last of three days of government-decreed mourning for Bhutto, with schools and offices due to reopen today. The country was rocked by riots and looting almost from the moment her death was announced, with most of the violence concentrated in her hometown, Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.

The violence eased yesterday, but the death toll stood at nearly 50 and Karachi's streets were pockmarked with burned-out buildings and littered with the charred hunks of torched vehicles. Property damage ran into the tens of millions of dollars.

The Bush administration refrained from taking a position on the timing of the vote or the accession of Bhutto's son and husband, saying only that it hoped the polling would be free and fair.

The United States had hoped that Bhutto, armed with a strong election mandate, might have been able to forge a power-sharing accord with Musharraf, who has just embarked on a second five-year term as president, taking office after a vote by lawmakers that was sharply contested by his political opponents.

That opposition was widely believed to have been the main reason Musharraf imposed emergency rule, akin to martial law, for six weeks ending earlier this month.

Husain Haqqani, the director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, said Pakistan's dynastic traditions likely drove the decision to anoint father and son.

"Politics always has a sentimental dimension all over the world," he said. "It is the reason the Kennedys and the Nehru-Gandhis get elected."

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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