Last week, with political pressure mounting from all sides, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, for medical treatment. As rumors swirled that he was fleeing or being ousted by the military, he swiftly played his trump card — the fact that he remains the father of Benazir Bhutto’s children and, for now at least, the guardian of that inheritance.
No sooner had Zardari left the country than the couple’s only son, 23-year-old Bilawal, was thrust into the limelight, appearing here to co-chair a high-level meeting of his Pakistan People’s Party, alongside Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. It was a move designed to shore up his father’s power base, analysts said, and reassure his supporters that the Zardari-Bhutto family was not about to be pushed aside easily.
“It was designed to send a signal to the party that Zardari may be unwell but the party leadership remains with him via his son,” said newspaper editor Cyril Almeida. “It could also have been a preemptive move to prevent any cracks in the party emerging. It sends a powerful message that the Bhuttos are here.”
The 2007 assassination of Bhutto, a former prime minister and PPP leader, paved the way for Zardari’s election as president and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s taking over as the nominal co-chairman of the party. But the son returned to Britain to complete his studies at Oxford University.
He is still too young even to contest an election — the minimum age in Pakistan is 25 — so his role will remain somewhat limited. For now, his father and his father’s inner circle will still call the shots, political analysts said.
But questions about Zardari’s long-term health and heart problems have raised the spectre of a more rushed succession than originally planned, for not everyone in the party thinks that the young man is ready for an enhanced role or that the PPP was wise to thrust him forward so early. Bilawal Zardari is said to be shy, and there are questions about how keen he is on a future in politics.
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