A decade after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, her son Bilawal is striving to reclaim his mother’s mantle, the latest act in a Shakespearean saga of tragedy and power.
But reviving the wilted fortunes of his family’s political dynasty ahead of the next General Election will be a tough ask for the Oxford-educated scion, who at 29-years-old has never held political office.
His task is a lonely one, the bachelor admits. “If I was to say I had a life, that would be a lie,” Bilawal tells AFP. “Netflix is a lifesaver.”
Although the Bhuttos once dominated politics, analysts say Bilawal faces an uphill battle in 2018, with cricketer-turned-opposition stalwart Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on the ascent, and the ruling PML-N of deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif clawing at support.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the PPP and ascended to the highest civil office in the land, followed by Benazir, who was elected PM twice and was running a third time when she was killed in a gun and bomb attack on December 27, 2007.
“If they stopped assassinating us then my mother would be in the foreign office and I would still be a student,” says Bilawal.
Bilawal was named PPP chairman after his mother’s death but, still just a student, he returned to Oxford.
Since her death the PPP has seen its fortunes plunge, and few are willing to bet on Bilawal shepherding it back to glory. But there are flickers of life.
When Bilawal took the stage at the PPP’s golden jubilee celebrations in Islamabad last week, surprised observers put the crowd at around 25,000 – higher than recent rival gatherings.
Much like his charismatic mother, Bilawal was forthright at the lectern, confronting militancy and the military alike.
“We have to continue our progressive struggle and defeat the conspiracies of dictatorship,” he thundered as the crowd roared.
But away from the podium he cuts a shyer persona.
“My mother often said that she didn’t choose this life, it chose her,” he tells AFP at the family home in Karachi. “The same applies to me.”
Bilawal’s father and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari took control as the party swept the 2008 elections, presiding over its years of decay, fuelled by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
Questions linger over Bilawal’s ability to lead the PPP if power still ultimately rests with Zardari. Bilawal argues his youth is an asset: “I have time on my side.”
Reports suggest he plans to contest his mother’s old seat in Sindh. He dismisses concerns over his own security, saying: “We don’t give in to fear.”3But observers note that the protection surrounding Bilawal, his elite status and time abroad could be sequestering him from voters – some of who want more than just another scion.
“Under the dynastic politics, democracy has been laid to rest,”” says a resident of Karachi, Sardar Zulfiqar.
But attendees at the golden jubilee have faith, clinging to the PPP’s veneer of progressiveness as the country remains locked in a tug-of-war between far-right politics and democratic moderates.
Asma Gillani, 52, has supported the party since she first heard ZAB on the radio as a child, right up to the moment she lost hearing in one ear as she was hit by the blast wave in the attack that killed Benazir.
As Benazir’s young son takes the stage she remarks: “God willing he will lead this country.”—AFP