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A fierce competition

The new generation of Pakistani leaders must provide new slogans and effectiveness in service delivery to young voters instead of reminding them of old injustices. Ayesha Siddiqa writes.

columns Updated: Jan 10, 2013 00:29 IST

On December 27, 2012, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) re-launched its heir at the fifth death anniversary of slain political leader Benazir Bhutto. With an attentive crowd in front of him, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari delivered his debut speech in Urdu, which was emotional and well-rehearsed, which excited a pliant bunch of supporters. PPP circles were relieved to see a new generation step into the shoes of a future leader of the party who may hold the party together more strongly. Although President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also the co-chairman of the PPP, has managed to keep the party afloat after Benazir Bhutto's death, a strong anchor was needed. With his first public address in which he proved his skill as a good political orator, the young Bhutto Zardari laid solid claim to the political legacy of his maternal grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The jalsa (gathering) sent out a strong signal to Benazir Bhutto's assassinated older brother Murtaza Bhutto's children - Fatima Bhutto and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Jr - that the PPP belonged to Bilawal and not the two of them. Benazir's son is now expected to contest the next elections from her constituency in Larkana, Sindh. He will most likely win the election as well. This is not only due to the devotion of the ordinary Sindhi to the Bhutto family, especially Benazir who is perhaps considered a greater martyr than her own father - newly married couples visit her mausoleum to seek blessings - but also because of the Benazir Income Support Programme that has provided money to a lot of poor people, thus, strengthening the PPP's constituency even further. Sources claim that a lot of people who attended the December 27 gathering were recipients of government aid.

However, he is not the only one being groomed for a leadership role. The PPP's opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), is also grooming its leader Nawaz Sharif's daughter Mariam Nawaz as his possible heir. Diplomats and other visitors meeting Sharif in Lahore talk about the young girl being present at the meetings. But she usually remains quiet. This is probably because she may not be expected to voice her opinion especially in her authoritative Punjabi family setting. Sources close to the Sharif family claim that even the chief minister of Punjab and Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, dare not question his older brother. If he does, it is done indirectly. So Mariam Sharif is expected to fill a role carved out for her by her father who has opted to present his daughter as his political heir rather than his two sons.

In terms of top-down authority, the PPP is no different either. Some Bhutto family friends claim that Bilawal does not necessarily share his father's opinion and had to struggle to convince his father to let him complete his education at Oxford where his mother Benazir admitted him before her death in 2008. This in itself does not mean that Bilawal will take any revolutionary position contrary to the political views of his father. In fact, after hearing his speech, some commentators were of the opinion that the young man copied his mother's style but his father's ideas.

Mariam Nawaz Sharif or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari represent a third or fourth generation leadership of old established parties in South Asia. An important question worth asking is whether this new generation has the capacity to take on the leadership role and revive their parties and national politics in general? This not only means impressive presentation but meaningful content as well. Be it Rahul Gandhi in India or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Pakistan, they will be judged by their ability to provide a new direction to a new generation of youth.

The new leadership has to cater to the restlessness of the youth, especially those from the middle class who have a higher expectation of change in their respective societies and states. Pakistan's current political discourse revolves around its youth demographics. Although the PPP will continue to maintain its vote bank, especially in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, there is general anxiety all over the country over corruption and poor governance. In fact, the middle class in Sindh is more inclined towards religious right-wing organisations as a counter-force to traditional parties like the PPP. The bulk of the new young voters also have little sense of politics and history and so little reverence for older parties and politicians.

Getting rid of corruption and giving a political vision that brings greater opportunities is the new political mantra. There is also greater competition in politics with newer parties and characters challenging old ones. Thus, the new political leadership must realise that politics is now a game of competition in which new slogans and effectiveness in service delivery is what will endear them to the new generation of voters rather than reminding them of old injustices. Bilawal will probably be able to do greater justice to his mother and grandfather's memory by attending to the need for bringing down the cost of commodities than by getting a revised judgement from the supreme court in the cases of the assassination of the older Bhuttos.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based writer and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy

The views expressed by the author are personal(C) Right Vision Media Syndicate, Pakistan