It was not merely the rain that dampened Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari’s rally this weekend in Birmingham, England. The leader of the secular and populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who addressed thousands of supporters at the city’s convention centre, has faced a barrage of criticism both at home and abroad.
People wanted to know why Zardari had been in Europe, enjoying five-star luxury and promoting the political career of his son, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto (who was absent from the event) when millions of his citizens were facing the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.
After a series of meetings with world leaders, the rally was widely seen as a coronation for young Bilawal, heir to the Bhutto clan. However, after the criticism mounted, the party claimed that Bilawal had never intended to attend the rally. “It has been stated that I am going to launch my political career this Saturday in Birmingham. This is not true,” Bilawal said in a statement released by the Pakistan High Commission. However, the organisers at the rally clearly had not received the memo. A large banner on the platform read, rather incriminatingly, “Welcome Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party”.
The High Commission’s denial was, however, correct in one sense. Bilawal’s career was actually launched more than two years ago when, in December 2007, he assumed leadership of the PPP following the assassination of his mother, party leader Benazir Bhutto. At a packed press conference the 19-year-old Bilawal announced that he had been selected as the co-chairman of Pakistan’s largest mass political movement – despite having spent the majority of his life abroad.
The Pakistan People’s Party, as the name suggests, is a party that fights on a platform of democracy, often against the arbitrary rule of military dictators. However, since its foundation in 1967 by Bilawal’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party’s leadership has been exclusively a family affair.
In the words of one UK commentator, the party, and by extension leadership of the country, is being handed on like “family furniture”, more a dysfunctional monarchy than a robust democracy.
Even before his birth there was an assumption that Bilawal would play a major part in the country’s politics. He was “the most celebrated and politically controversial baby in the history of Pakistan”, Benazir wrote in her memoirs.
The phenomenon of a mass anti-poverty party dominated by a wealthy Anglophone elite is by no means limited to Pakistan. Across the border, India’s Congress Party has ruled the country for 48 of the 63 years since independence and has been dominated by the foreign-educated Nehru-Gandhi family for much of that time, a dynasty with its centre of gravity in Cambridge as much as New Delhi.
In Pakistan, however, the concatenation of family intrigue, weak institutions and an overbearing army bodes ill for the beleaguered populace. Bilawal is the latest fast-track entrant to a bruised political system in dire need of legitimacy. He seems unlikely to be its saviour.