The Pakistan Peoples Party settled the leadership issue on Sunday night by naming its slain leader Benazir Bhutto’s eldest child, the teenaged Bilawal, as her successor.
Benazir had named her husband Asif Ali Zardari as the party chief in the will Bilawal read out at the PPP’s central executive committee meeting at Naudero, Larkana, on Sunday. But Zardari explained his decision to pass on the baton to his son by arguing that “nobody other than Bilawal can keep the PPP and the federation (of Pakistan) intact.” He said the new PPP chairperson will be called Bilawal Bhutto Zardari from now on.
Born in the middle of the 1988 poll campaign that brought his mother to power for the first time, Bilawal, 19, is studying at Oxford. He said as PPP co-chairperson, his father Asif Ali Zardari will “take care of the party till I complete my studies.”
At the interaction that saw Bilawal quoting Benazir to assert that “democracy is the best revenge,” Zardari claimed his party was ready to contest the polls as scheduled on January 8.
Many observers interpreted this move and the one to give his children — including daughters Bakhtawar and Asifa — the Bhutto surname as “deft manoeuvering” aimed at exploiting electorally the sympathy wave sweeping Pakistan after Benazir’s assassination.
A late night PTI report said that after PPP’s decision, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N party has also decided to take part in the January 8 polls.
Quite noteworthy in this context was his claim that most of those who died in the fidayeen attack with Benazir were Punjabis he had befriended while in jail. He told his party’s Sindhi cadres to refrain from drawing ethnic lines: “Punjabis have died in Punjab with your leader. Please respect them.”
He upbraided those who raised questions about Pakistan’s survival after Benazir’s killing: “Don’t say Pakistan na khapey (don’t say Pakistan will break up). I say Pakistan khapey. Suntey kaano, dekhte aankhon, mera faisla democracy aur Pakistan ko bachaney ke liye hai.”
Zardari added: “Benazir and ZAB (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) never talked of breaking Pakistan.”
Most of the talking at the press conference was done by Zardari, prompting early comments about his central role in the party's affairs. He said his wife had chosen Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who ran the PPP during her self-imposed exile from Pakistan, as the prime ministerial candidate. But the proviso he very meaningfully added was that the final call on the issue will be taken by the party.
With the PML (Nawaz) responding positively tonight to Zardari's exhortations against boycotting the polls, the ball now is in the court of Pervez Musharraf, whose caretaker administration had asked the PPP to decide on the issue in the fond hope that it may seek a breather. Recalling Benazir's comment to him after her first victory in the 1980s that she has avenged her father, ZAB's blood, Zardari predicted a PPP victory in the next polls “which will be our revenge for her death.”
But while being boisterous, he let it be known that his party's battle was not against the army but a section of those who are in power. He also frequently described the pro-Musharraf PML(Q) as the “qatil (murderer)” league, urging the electorate to express their anger through the vote.
Confirming reports that he asked the government not to carry out an autopsy on his wife's body, he rubbished the ongoing probe while seeking an international investigation into Benazir's assassination on the pattern of the commission that went into Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri's killing. Zardari told the gathering to address their questions to him rather than his son who, he said, despite being the party chief, was of “tender age”.