Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto (C) waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Karachi early on July 21, 2018.(AFP Photo)
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto (C) waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Karachi early on July 21, 2018.(AFP Photo)

Pakistan election: Bilawal Bhutto wins hearts but has big shoes to fill

The chances of Bilawal Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, becoming the next prime minister may be slim, but his campaign has won him many admirers
By Imtiaz Ahmad | Hindustan Times, Islamabad, Islamabad
UPDATED ON JUL 22, 2018 08:50 AM IST

The chances of Bilawal Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, becoming the next prime minister may be slim, but his campaign has won him many admirers. The centre-of-left party’s nominee has undertaken an exhaustive tour of the country, meeting thousands of supporters and trying to reignite the spirit of the PPP.

As things stand, analysts say that the party — founded by Bilawal’s grandfather and former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — is possibly at its worst point. But Bilawal brings hope. Many have praised this young man’s positive approach to politics.

At a time when others are happy to swear and abuse opponents, Bilawal kept himself above petty politics. On many occasions, his motorcade has been held up. He has been stopped from campaigning in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on security grounds. On one occasion, the flight he was in was not allowed to take off from Lahore airport for hours. In one Karachi locality, his rally was pelted with stones. And yet he keeps on smiling and trudging along, never once losing his cool.

But Bilawal has big shoes to fill. As the son of Pakistan’s first woman prime minister Benazir Bhutto, he is aware of the high expectations the public has of him. Friends and well-wishers say that over the years, Bilawal has matured and made a mark for himself. From a time when he could barely speak in Urdu or in his mother tongue Sindhi, he is now able to address rallies and motivate crowds. His confidence has increased. He has reached out to his supporters and many are hopeful.

From a national party at the time of Benazir Bhutto’s death in 2007, today the PPP has been reduced to support only in its home province - Sindh. The party is not expected to do much better in the coming elections.

Some say Bilawal’s biggest liability is his father, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to run the party from behind the scenes. The party Bilawal has inherited is fragmented and disillusioned, and its workers complain that Zardari has killed its spirit. Most of the candidates finalised by the party were done with Zardari’s approval, and his loyalists — including his two sisters — have been given important positions. Corruption is rampant.

Zardari has also reached an understanding with the military, through which Nawaz Sharif was ousted as premier and the PPP did not protest, despite the fact that the two parties have signed a charter of democracy, under which they pledged not to be used by the army against one another.

In return for his silence, Zardari’s corruption cases were hushed up.

If there is any hope of a revival for the PPP, it comes from Bilawal. But for the party to win, there must be a level playing field, he insists.

In a recent talk with the media, Bilawal said his party is taking part in the elections despite having strong reservations over the process. “Besides other attempts in favour of a certain party, the PPP candidates are being pressured to either quit the electoral race or fight as an independent,” he said.

This situation, he said, could not be tolerated but for the sake of democracy, the PPP is contesting the elections. “The polls should be fair and transparent and the process must not be made controversial by facilitating certain parties and allies,” he said, adding that the July 25 vote is a challenge for pro-democracy forces.

Another worry is how the caretaker government has allowed members of banned organisations to participate. In reference to seat adjustments with certain religious elements in Karachi by the PTI and the PML-N, Bilawal has accused both parties of striking electoral alliances with “terrorists”.

“The PML-N is used to selection instead of election while this party and the PTI strike alliances with banned outfits against us like in Karachi,” he said.

And yet, Bilawal continues to campaign and win hearts. Replying to a query about the set-up to emerge after the polls, he said that “even a weak democracy is better than dictatorship.”

For many, this electoral campaign has allowed Bilawal to emerge as a national leader. “We are hopeful that Bilawal will pull the party back into shape and win the elections in the coming years,” says analyst Ghazi Salahuddin, who insists that it is time for Pakistan’s liberal and progressive forces to align and fight against the restrictions imposed by the establishment. “I see light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

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