Islamabad: Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal has struck a chord with Pakistan’s young Internet users but may take longer to win over his slain mother’s impoverished rural supporters, analysts and net-surfers say.
The 19-year-old, whose mother and grandfather were famed for their rhetorical skills during their terms in power, chose the social networking site Facebook on Monday to make his biggest public statement yet since her killing.
In a message on Facebook -- where he has attracted more than 1,200 “friends” -- he admitted that he was “not a born leader” despite having taken on the leadership of Bhutto’s party just three days after her death.
“I’m merely a student. I do the things that students do, like make mistakes, eat junk food, watch Buffy (a reference to a US television series) but most importantly of all... learn,” he said.
After his first news conference as party chairman at the weekend, during which his father intervened to stop questions, he showed a preference for the relative safety of the Internet for his next contact with the world.
This shows that the Oxford University student has much to learn about the bloody circus of Pakistani politics -- something that he admits, analyst Hasan Askari said.
“It demonstrates an element of humility and the recognition this young undergraduate has his own limits,” Askari, a former head of political science at Lahore’s Punjab University, told AFP.
A political novice, the heir to the Bhutto dynasty was crowned head of his mother’s opposition party on Sunday but will remain a ceremonial chief until he finishes his degree in 2010.
In the meantime his father Asif Ali Zardari will run the party’s affairs, including in the run-up to an election which has been thrown into chaos by Bhutto’s killing at a political rally a week ago.
Yet Internet users say the history student has shown the family knack for populism, with at least 12 fan sites springing up on Facebook, including a group called: “Let’s not assassinate Bilawal Bhutto because he’s hot, ok?”
“Bilawal Go Ahead All Young Generation is Wid (with) u,” wrote one user on the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari group, one of the most popular.
“Being a young, Internet-using Pakistani, Bilawal’s efforts need to be appreciated as it is a growing medium and a very effective mode of reaching the masses,” Karachi-based student and Facebooker Akbar Khan told AFP.
With service providers saying that up to 10 million of Pakistan’s youthful 160 million population are online, a figure that is growing fast, he said Bhutto Zardari was using the correct medium.
But Khan said he thought this could alienate the still impoverished rural areas of Pakistan, especially southern Sindh province, where the Bhuttos draw their most fervent support from people working on their extensive landholdings.
Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a former premier who was executed in 1979, used fiery public speeches to stir up support for the nominally pro-working class Pakistan People’s Party.
“Using a combination of the latest technology and old orthodox means of communicating directly with the public in the form of speeches and seminars can be the key to success for Bilawal,” he said.
Another Pakistani Facebooker, Islamabad researcher Minhaj ul Haque, disagreed.
“The message from Bilawal is balanced, promising and in fact quite mature -- I wonder if he wrote it. Bilawal has prepared his message with emotive appeal and is certainly going to touch many hearts,” he told AFP.
“I have seen Internet cafes in small towns in Pakistan and young people, mostly boys are using it,” he said, adding that the cafes were equipped with word processors in the local languages of Urdu and Sindhi.
In the meantime, the young Bhutto has faced his first Internet backlash.
A photograph on a friend’s Facebook page shows him wearing devil horns and fiendish make-up as fancy dress -- while another group on the site has called itself: “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari? Where’d he come from?”