Bilawal Bhutto Zadari: The People’s Choice?


Published: January 31, 2008

Roughly one month from now, potentially decisive parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Originally planned for Jan. 8, the set date was postponed as a result of the Dec. 28 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and early frontrunner in the race for Prime Minister. Bhutto once declared that, “Democracy is necessary to peace and to undermining the forces of terrorism.” If her death at the hands of unidentified terrorists is any indication, Pakistan needs the stability of internal peace now more than ever.

However, in the spirit of democratic thought, it remains to be seen whether this goal can best be attained through the democracy envisioned by Bhutto and her party. The PPP was formed in 1967, with Bhutto’s father serving as its first chairman. Chief among the party’s founding promises was the utopian establishment of an “egalitarian democracy” in a Pakistan led at the time (and occasionally even now) by a de facto military dictatorship. For this reason, the appointment of Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal, as party head two days after his mother’s death came under a certain amount of scrutiny. Many saw the continued passage of family succession within the PPP as an undemocratic act of nepotism. Pakistan needs democracy, they argued, not dynasty.

The detractors may have a point. Bilawal Bhutto Zadari, a first year history student at Christ’s College, is hardly a poster child for egalitarianism. During a London press conference shortly after his mother’s assassination, the Oxford student tempestuously declared: “How many Bhuttos can you kill? From every house a Bhutto will come.” While this statement embraces a strong populist sentiment, it is little more than empty political rhetoric. Nearly one fourth of Pakistan’s population lives in abject poverty while a mere handful of powerful families hold most of the country’s wealth. In this nearly feudal system, the majority of adolescents do not have the opportunity to receive an education anywhere near the caliber of the one Bilawal continues to enjoy in England.

Moreover, the decision to elect any college-aged student to such an important position hardly seems democratic. While Bilawal insists that the party chair was not passed on to him “like a piece of furniture,” it is clear that the inheritance of a privileged name defines him more than his achievements. In a nation that requires a citizen to be 25 to run for Parliament, the appointment of someone who is ineligible to run for any type of public office to the head of a democratic party does not seem like a logical succession. Some have suggested that Bilawal’s cousin, the politically involved 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto, would have been a better choice. Fatima herself, however, claims that the idea of a Bhutto succession “is a dangerous one” that fails to “benefit a party that’s supposed to be run on democratic lines.” When asked about her political aspirations, she did not rule out the possibility of running but insisted, “I’m not interested in being a symbol for anyone.”

However, if Bilawal is being used merely as a symbol, he can hardly be held personally or singularly accountable. In an increasingly fickle global society obsessed with images and status, face and name recognition are almost universally appealing. Of the many groups baring Bilawal’s name on Facebook, “Let’s not assassinate Bilawal Bhutto because he’s hot, ok?” has 12 times as many members as  “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: Saviour of DEMOCRACY in Pakistan.” The cynic would dismiss this disparity as mere superficiality, but perhaps there might be more to it than that.

Maybe being the embodiment of “hot” not only represents an elite privilege of the “aristocratic” classes, but also underscores their obligation to distract the masses from their comparatively unpromising and unglamorous lives. Perhaps this form of dynastic celebrity worship provides the sort of emotional stability that many of us truly need.

As compassionate people, we should recognize the trauma caused by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination to her family and supporters around the world; seeing Bilawal follow in his mother’s footsteps reassures these people that her memory and idealism will not be forgotten. Likewise, this involvement may facilitate Bilawal’s own vital connection to his mother’s severed life and legacy. While the party chair of the PPP may very well be a family heirloom, it must be remembered that Bilawal lost the most in his mother’s assassination and, thus, deserves some form of strong emotional reimbursement.

While “democracy can be the best revenge,” as Bhutto proclaimed, revenge is not always the most effective medicine. In the wake of such a tragedy, the comfort brought by something that connects individuals on a basic level is sometimes stronger than anything an abstract and oftentimes impossible notion such as democracy or equality can provide.