By Jemima Khan
Death duties are being reformed in this country and the upper limit extended. They don’t come more onerous than those left to Bilawal Bhutto, né Zardari. Many Oxford undergraduates consider a career in politics; few are handed a political party, a new name and the statistical probability that you’re not going to die of old age, in bed.
Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son and heir will lead the PPP into the upcoming elections, which his party is likely to win, thanks to the martyr factor. Then he will return to Oxford to complete his studies leaving a regent, in the form of his infamous father, Asif Ali Zardari, in charge. Apparently - and this is widely disputed in Pakistan - this is in accordance with his mother’s letter of wishes.
Zardari, widely known as Mr Ten Per Cent, has spent more than a decade in jail in Pakistan on corruption charges. He is believed to have looted up to $1.5 billion from the Treasury, is appealing a conviction by a Swiss court for money-laundering and faces a separate inquiry in Britain. More sinisterly, he was also accused of complicity in the murder of Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto.
Pity Pakistan. If anything good could have come from Benazir’s assassination it was that the PPP would reform and re-establish itself as a modern and truly democratic party. As the PPP is one half of a two-party system, the party’s survival is vital for Pakistan’s democracy. Founded by Benazir’s father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it is also the only national grassroots party in Pakistan’s history.
Some say the party is rotten to its core. That’s untrue. There still exists a minority of incorruptible and principled politicians, as well as the favoured, acquiescent types. Others claim there are no credible leaders to replace Benazir within the party. Also untrue. Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and PPP stalwart, emerged as a national hero and natural successor when he stood up to the military and protested against the dismissal of the chief justice. For this he was jailed, beaten and kept in solitary confinement. He remains under house arrest in Lahore. And as he has credibility, experience and popular support, it suits all the power seekers both inside and outside the PPP that he stays there.
The justification for the selection of Benazir’s son as chairman was that only a Bhutto could provide unity within the party. If so, then why not 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto, who is arguably more qualified for the job than her teenage Facebooking cousin? If everything’s in a name, Fatima need not have changed hers in order to inherit. Brought up in Pakistan, unlike Bilawal, and a native speaker, she is an established writer and political commentator. At least she has some work experience. Aunt Benazir’s first-ever job was prime minister of a 160-million-strong nation.
It helps, in a lookist society, that she’s also as beautiful as her aunt - a young Salma Hayek lookalike - and has similar tragic appeal: orphaned, like most Bhuttos, as a result of a political assassination. Fatima is also politicised and outspoken. Too much so. She repeatedly accused her aunt of being complicit in the murder of her father and savagely opposed Zardari. That ruled her out.
The real reason Fatima is my favourite Bhutto, though, is that she has the sense to realise that a few good articles and the right surname don’t qualify her for leadership. Unlike others in the family, she rejects the notion that political power is her birthright: “I don’t think my name qualifies me or makes me the best person.”
The result of Benazir’s bequest may be the disintegration of the PPP. Mumtaz Bhutto, clan elder and former chief minister of Sindh, has already publicly said: “This will split the party very badly. Zardari has no political acumen.”
The only consensus within the party was that Zardari was to blame for his wife’s transgressions. Once emotions subside, the true horror of the succession will sink in. Zardari’s rule, even as regent, is unsustainable.
When political parties claiming to represent democracy are run like monarchies, posthumously electing family members and quashing all dissent, what hope is there for democracy in the country?
It always strikes me as patronising when outsiders claim that Pakistan has no other credible leaders. The argument in favour of Benazir was always “Well, who else?”
The problem is that in a country where clans and names bear such significance, the circles of power are closed. It’s the system that fails to allow other leaders to emerge that is the problem, not the lack of viable alternatives. In rural Sindh and Punjab feudal landlords have always dominated politics and the educated middle class remains excluded.
A ruling family may well produce the odd leader who is adequate and groomed to rule. It is equally likely to spawn an ineffectual, out-of-touch and parasitic elite that sucks the lifeblood from the country, perpetuating the cycle of poverty, popular revolt and military coups that has bedevilled Pakistan’s history.
If the PPP wins the elections, as is expected, the question becomes: is this democracy, as our leaders in the West would have it, or rather a dynasty posing in democracy’s figleaf?
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