Bilawal Bhutto seeks Pakistan political revival in democracy defence

Bilawal Bhutto will give a keynote speech at what the Pakistan Peoples Party says will be its largest gathering in seven years

Naween A. Mangi
First Published17 Oct 2014
The rally will kick off a series of events across the country designed to revive the party&#8217;s fortunes and raise Bhutto Zardari&#8217;s profile. Photo: AFP<br />
The rally will kick off a series of events across the country designed to revive the party&#8217;s fortunes and raise Bhutto Zardari&#8217;s profile. Photo: AFP

Karachi:Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could be forgiven for shunning Pakistani politics: He’s lived overseas for most of his life and both his mother and grandfather were killed after serving stints as Prime Minister.

On Saturday, the 26-year-old will take his biggest step yet, giving a keynote speech at what the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) says will be its largest gathering in seven years. The rally will kick off a series of events across the country designed to revive the party’s fortunes and raise Bhutto Zardari’s profile.

“It’s the first test of his abilities,” said Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, referring to the rally. “He has some pluses: he’s young, educated, has the legacy of Bhutto and an unambiguous stance on terrorism. The next six months will be crucial for him and the party.”

The PPP, which lost power to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in last year’s election due to electricity shortages and rising terrorist attacks, has backed Sharif against protesters who have camped in Islamabad the past two months to oust the government. The party sees the risk of a coup building in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its existence.

“Democracy is in danger,” Senator Taj Haider, a senior PPP leader, said by phone ahead of the rally. “We united the parliament for the defence of democracy and the first attack was thwarted. And now we are mobilizing the people because the mobilization of parliament may not be enough.”

Voters desert

The PPP, once the largest national party, faces the challenge of enticing a vote bank swayed by Sharif’s pro-business appeal and opposition leader Imran Khan’s slogan of change. After leading a coalition government following the 2008 elections, the PPP was relegated to rural parts of the southern Sindh province after last year’s election.

Saturday’s rally will mark the anniversary of a 2007 attack at an event in Karachi attended by hundreds of thousands of people celebrating the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto after eight years in self-imposed exile. The party hasn’t held rallies since the blast, which killed 139 people and injured more than 500, according to spokesman Ijaz Durrani.

Bhutto Zardari, the oldest of Bhutto and former President Asif Ali Zardari’s three children, was made chairman of the party after his mother was killed in 2007. The Oxford University graduate has announced he plans to stand for a parliamentary seat in the 2018 general elections for the first time.

‘Best revenge’

“I asked my mother why we don’t take revenge and why we always practice reconciliation,” Bhutto Zardari said in an 6 October speech. “She taught me that democracy is the best revenge, and I’ve been saying this since I was 19.”

The PPP was founded by Bilawal’s grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967 as “an answer to the dictatorial and anti-people policies of the military-bureaucratic-feudal nexus of power that ruled the country since its inception in 1947,” according to the party’s website.

Bhutto’s slogan of “Roti, Kapra Aur Makan”—food, clothing and shelter for every Pakistani—resonated among the rural poor and quickly made the party the biggest national political force. It won an outright majority in Pakistan’s first general elections in 1970.

Seven years later, general Mohammad Zia ul-Haq seized power in a military coup. Bhutto was executed and his two sons were murdered, one in France and another in a Karachi shooting.

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto spent five years in solitary confinement when she was imprisoned just before her father’s execution in 1979. She went on to become the first elected woman prime minister of an Islamic nation in 1988.

She led two separate governments, the last of which was dismissed on corruption charges in 1996. She split her time between Dubai and London after 1999 to avoid allegations of misstating her wealth and taking kickbacks on state contracts.

Benazir Bhutto was assassinated shortly after returning to Pakistan in a gunfire-and-bomb attack during a political rally in Rawalpindi. In an election the next year, the PPP won 125 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly. Their seat tally fell to 46 last year, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League taking 189 seats.

Bhutto Zardari made his political debut on 27 December 2012, his mother’s fifth death anniversary.

“The PPP wants to cash in on its past,” Rashid Ahmed Khan, professor at University of Sargodha in Punjab province, said by phone. “I don’t think giving the same old slogans will attract people, but at the same time it’s not a finished force.”

‘Old slogans’

The young Bhutto, who learned to speak Pakistan’s national language of Urdu after returning to the country, has posted audio recordings of himself reciting Urdu poetry on Twitter before the rally saying he won’t forget his grandfather’s lessons or leave his mother’s path, he will live and die with the people.

“His hysterical rhetoric, which makes little sense, betrays his extreme naivete,” Zahid Hussain, author of “The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How It Threatens America,” wrote in the Dawn newspaper on 15 October.

After tomorrow’s rally, the party plans to hold gatherings in other cities across Pakistan as a “movement to mobilize people for democracy,” Haider said.

“The problem with the party, just like Indian National Congress in India, Nepali Congress in Nepal and Awami League Bangladesh, is it tends to live on its past laurels,” Sargodha University’s Khan said. “But that won’t happen now.” Bloomberg

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