Rumours of the Pakistan People’s Party’s imminent disintegration may be exaggerated. But the killing of its leader Benazir Bhutto has created a massive void in a party founded 40 years ago by her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Many are skeptical of her tainted husband Asif Zardari’s ability to keep the party together, even through the proxy of their renamed son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The PPP’s performance in the national elections, now postponed to February 18, will be crucial to the acceptance of his leadership by the party, and to the party’s own future.
Since his wife’s killing, Mr. Zardari has taken effective charge of the PPP. Bilawal and his two sisters left Pakistan for Dubai a day after he was anointed the new chairman. As the “co-chairman”, Mr. Zardari is calling the shots as the party emerges from mourning its leader to tackle the upcoming election.
Among Mr. Zardari’s first priorities was to reassert the national character of the party over its ethnic identity. The PPP has a very large base in Sindh, its political stronghold. But it is also the only party in Pakistan that boasts a strong country-wide following. Mr. Zardari, himself a Sindhi, was quick to condemn the targeting of Punjabis in the violence that broke out in the province in the aftermath of Benazir’s killing.
The entire nation mourned her tragic passing and there is a personal sense of bereavement even for those who disliked her politics and thought her corrupt. But in Sindh, it acquired ethnic overtones, and was seen as a killing “by Punjab” of a political leader from a smaller province. Central to this was the city of her assassination. Rawalpindi, located in the Punjab province and the headquarters of the Pakistan military, had sent back the dead bodies of two other prime ministers, people said – Benazir’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, and before him, Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951, both non-Punjabis.
At her funeral in Garhi Khuda Baksh, some mourners shouted in Sindhi, “Pakistan nakhabey” (We don’t want Pakistan). Mr. Zardari emphatically sought to correct that. “Pakistan khabey, (we want Pakistan ) Khabey, Khabey,” he said at his first press conference. He paid tribute to Benazir’s bodyguards who died in the bomb attack on her as my “Punjabi brothers” and spoke of the “Punjabi friends” that he made during his time in jail. He was also quick to affirm that the PPP’s battle was not against the Pakistan Army.
But despite making the right noises on sensitive issues, Mr. Zardari starts out as the de facto PPP leader with some disadvantages. As with the Congress and the Gandhis in India, the PPP is the party of the Bhutto family. It was run first by ZAB, and after his death, the party accepted the leadership of his wife Nusrat and daughter Benazir. Everyone knew that her father was grooming her for public life ever since he took her to Shimla for the talks with India in 1972. She earned her political spurs with her all-out battle for his life with her mother between 1977 and 1979. In the 1990s, Benazir anointed herself “chairperson for life”, and the party did not oppose it.
Mr. Zardari is not a Bhutto. I n recent years, Benazir had kept him away from party affairs. She lived in Dubai, he in New York. Although she denied rumours of their estrangement, their paths crossed infrequently. Nor did she appear to be grooming her son to take over the party at some stage.
The only real Bhuttos left are 17-year-old Zulfikar Junior, the son of Benazir’s brother Mir Murtaza and his Lebanese wife Ghinwa, and Murtaza’s 25-year-old daughter Fatima from his first wife. But the family was estranged from Benazir over Murtaza’s police killing on her watch as Prime Minister in 1996. In the weeks before Benazir’s killing, Fatima burnt angry holes in the op-ed pages of newspapers at home and in the US with stinging write-ups about her aunt. It was pretty clear that no member of that family could have succeeded Benazir to the PPP leadership
The confusion over the absence of a clear successor gave rise to initial speculation that the party might work out a system of “collective” leadership for the immediate term. Some even hoped that not just for Pakistan but for all of South Asia, the PPP would lead the way in breaking free of dynasty. But as with all autocratically run parties, Benazir hd ensured that her party second-rung would be weak and effete.
Her deputy, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, simply does not make the grade. There was talk briefly of Aitzaz Ahsan, whose association with the PPP goes back more than three decades to the time of ZAB. As the astute and aggressive lead counsel of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and one of the key figures in the 2007 lawyers’ agitation – he was arrested after the November 3 imposition of the emergency and remains under home imprisonment – Mr Ahsan has grown as a leader in his own right. But Benazir was insecure about his rise, and distanced herself from his stand on the judiciary. Moreover, resurgent Sindhi nationalism in the wake of Benazir’s killing would never have allowed a Punjabi to lead the PPP.
It goes to show the hold of the Bhuttos over the PPP in the popular imagination, and the conviction that only a member of the family can keep the party together that even after producing a “political will” by Benazir naming him as her successor, Mr. Zaradri chose to hand over the formal leadership to Bilawal Zardari, emphasizing his matrilineal ancestry by inserting Bhutto as his second name.
But while Mr. Zardari apparently “keeps the seat warm” for his son, he must also battle hostility towards him within the party and the distaste for him among PPP supporters who see themselves as liberal progressives. Nicknamed “Mr 10 per cent” for his wheeling-dealing while Benazir was the Prime Minister, especially in her second term, he is blamed by many in the party for her missteps. He was jailed for the murder of Mir Murtaza, and on other charges of kidnapping, extortion and kickbacks.
His release from jail in November 2004 was rumoured to be part of a deal under which Benazir would keep away from politics and he would take over the reins of the party. His eight years in jail was thought to have won him some sympathy in the PPP, and after spending time with Benazir in Dubai, he returned in April 2005, all prepared to lead the party. But he failed to pull it off. His excessive pro-Musharraf rhetoric left seniors in the party embarrassed and angry, and he left the country soon afterwards. His silence over party affairs in the last two years led to speculation that Benazir had asked him to keep shut.
In its present adversity, the party has mutely rallied under Mr. Zardari. While ideologically-committed PPP workers are bound to feel uncomfortable under him, for the moment, all the hostility appears reserved for certain others in the party who drew their power directly from Benazir and are now totally orphaned. One such is Rehman Malik, a former police official and a rank outsider to the PPP who in recent months, emerged as one of the principal decision-makers in the party. Much to the consternation of many party old-timers, he was even Benazir’s chief negotiator with the government in the deal with President Pervez Musharraf. She appointed him her “security adviser” but the party is asking why he was not present on the scene at the time of her killing, and the knives are out for him.
But the elections are Mr. Zardari’s real test. His grip over the PPP depends on how well the party performs under his leadership on February 18. There was no wave in favour of the party when Benazir was alive. The party was not really expected to win the elections. After the assassination, there is anticipation that a sympathy wave could land it a two-thirds majority. The timing of the election was crucial for this, one reason why the party was insistent that there should be no postponement in the January 8 date. It is not clear yet how the 40-day deferment will affect the party’s chances. But it is widely believed that concerns over a possible pro-PPP sympathy wave were one reason for the deferment.