January 30, 2008 | Op-ed
Even when Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, “reform” (whatever that means in the context of Pakistan) was likely a pipe dream–but analysts thought a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf could bolster his increasingly unpopular administration and perhaps even lend some legitimacy to military action against the terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) continues to be a critical force because although it is not the country’s only secular opposition party (the MQM and Awami National Party are still active), it is the only party of the type with true national reach. Unfortunately, the new PPP leadership faces internal conflicts and is unlikely to parlay public grief over Bhutto’s death into positive political change.
The PPP is now headed by what the L.A. Times has described as “a notoriously corrupt husband and a sheltered 19-year-old son.” The role that Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Zardari, will play in the PPP was announced at a chaotic press conference just three days after her death. There, Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari claimed that her will put him in charge of the PPP–but that “he had decided, with the consent of the executive committee, . . . to pass the baton to his son.” Bilawal actually comported himself well enough during that initial press conference, his first real taste of the limelight. He even managed to get off a memorable (albeit completely meaningless) quip: “My mother always said democracy is the best revenge.”
Little is known about Bilawal–so little that journalists desperate for insight into his personality raced to a false Facebook page for information. Born in Pakistan but raised mainly in Dubai and London, he studies history at Oxford University’s Christ Church College, his mother’s alma mater. His most notable accomplishments have come in youth athletics. A recent profile in the Hindu notes that Bilawal “is described as a fitness freak and a keen sports enthusiast. He is a black belt in Taekwondo and also loves swimming, horse riding, squash and target shooting.” His public interviews have been rare; when he spoke to a Pakistani newspaper about three years ago, he voiced his regret that circumstances would not permit him to play cricket.
Bilawal’s only previous political experience was serving as the vice president of the student council at the Rashid School for Boys in Dubai back in 2005. Further disadvantaging Bilawal, he reportedly cannot speak Urdu and is considered out of touch with life in Pakistan.
“He is just a young teenager,” Pramit Chaudhuri, associate editor of the Hindustan Times, told us. “He grew up in Dubai and London and has virtually no experience in Pakistan. His mother kept him under tight wraps.” A senior U.S. intelligence source concurred, telling us, “Bilawal is a 19-year-old kid. Like many 19-year-olds his political philosophy is still developing.”
Under Pakistan’s constitution, the head of a party needs to be eligible to run for parliament. Bilawal is too young (the minimum age is 25), but the fact that Asif Ali has been appointed the PPP’s acting chairman and regent will probably insulate the party against legal challenges.
Asif Ali Zardari now runs the PPP’s day-to-day operations as the parliamentary elections approach. Like his son, Asif Ali seemingly has no definable political philosophy. Indeed, it appears that democracy truly is “the best revenge” for him, considering how he managed to line his own pockets during his wife’s rule.
Asif Ali wed Bhutto in an arranged marriage in 1987. He earned the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent” during Bhutto’s stints as prime minister–the reference was to the value of his alleged kickbacks from each government contract. As a result, Asif Ali is frequently blamed for the corruption allegations that brought both of his wife’s administrations to an end. Other allegations against Asif Ali range to the downright bizarre: he stood trial for allegedly trying to extort money from a British businessman “by attaching a bomb to his legs.” He was acquitted of that charge.
After Bhutto’s second government collapsed in 1996, Asif Ali faced corruption charges in Pakistan, Britain, Spain, and Switzerland for allegedly plundering $1.5 billion. Many Pakistanis suspect Zardari’s involvement in the unsolved killing of Benazir Bhutto’s brother Murtaza; his reputation is in fact so poor in Pakistan that rumors are now swirling that he was involved in his wife’s assassination. Musharraf’s government seemed intent on fueling these rumors when it suggested in early January that Asif Ali, and not Musharraf, had prevented an autopsy of Bhutto’s body.
Needless to say, a man with this checkered history is unlikely to be an effective leader of a political party even under the best of circumstances.
But these are not the best of circumstances, and Asif Ali may find it difficult to hold the PPP together. Islamabad-based political commentator Ahmed Quraishi told us that the Bhutto family is privately suspicious of the will that Asif Ali relied on to take over the party’s reins. “Nobody knew about it, not even the Bhutto family, nor any of Benazir Bhutto’s political aides nor close associates within the party,” he said.
“Zardari’s rise to leadership marks the beginning of dissension within the PPP,” B. Raman, former head of counterterrorism for India’s external intelligence agency, told us. “It was a very unwise decision of the PPP to endorse Zardari, and very unwise of Benazir to have endorsed her husband.”
There are already signs that Raman may be correct. Some members of the Bhutto family (who have controlled the PPP since its inception forty years ago) have signaled their rejection of the legitimacy of both Bilawal and Asif Ali. Though Bilawal recently adopted “Bhutto” as his middle name, some family members do not consider him a part of the dynastic line. “Bilawal is actually a member of the Zardari family,” Saifullah Mehsud, a research analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, told us. “They repositioned him as a Bhutto, but lineage is traced from the father and not the mother. He is a Zardari son.”
Shortly after Bilawal’s appointment, the Bhutto family patriarch, 74 year-old Mumtaz Bhutto, opined that “a real Bhutto” should have been appointed instead. Facing persecution under previous Pakistani governments is seen as a rite of passage in the PPP, and Mumtaz Bhutto stressed that the Zardari family has “made no sacrifices for the party. . . . The party has come into existence on the name and the sweat and the blood of the Bhutto family.” Some party loyalists and Bhutto family members consider 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto as the rightful heir to the PPP’s leadership. (Further complicating matters is the fact that Fatima is the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto–whose death many family insiders blame on Asif Ali Zardari.)
The PPP’s fracturing is not inevitable, nor is it likely to occur before the Feb. 18 elections. An American intelligence source pointed out to us that the PPP’s succession decision was rapid, and the party bosses have not revolted in protest. It is possible that the PPP can maintain its cohesion based on outrage at the Musharraf government’s misdeeds alone, but there is skepticism at present that the current leadership can maintain its long-term credibility and effectiveness.
Even if the PPP does not collapse under the weight of internal bickering, the odds are overwhelmingly against anyone in the party leadership accomplishing the goals that Benazir Bhutto had upon her return to Pakistan. Since the PPP is Pakistan’s only secular opposition party with true national reach, its weakening is significant for U.S. strategic interests.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Nick Grace is a contributor to the national security web site ThreatsWatch.