There was much speculation about what would happen at Benazir Bhutto’s fifth death anniversary, the political debut of her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and an announcement of the date for the coming election. While the first took place, the second did not. However, Bilawal’s political debut, which took the shape of a speech on the occasion, did, even though it did not strictly represent his political debut, which took place when he became PPP Co-Chairman, splitting with his father the office held by his mother. Behind her, and influencing him, was the figure of the man she had inherited the office from, her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Asif Zardari thus finds himself in the same category as his mother-in-law, who took over as Co-Chairman when her husband was hanged im 1979. Benazir was older than Bilawal, so Nusrat never got to fight an election on her own. Her first election as PPP Co-Chairperson was also her daughter’s, and it was the latter who became Prime Minister. Nusrat never became more than Senior Minister, and after the 1993 election, not only was she not given a cabinet slot, but she was removed from the Co-Chairpersonship. Benazir was the sole leader of the party, and did not admit to its leadership her brother Murtaza, whose election as an MPA nominally made him one of his sister’s ‘wings’ as MNA, but also avenged the defeat of Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, Zulfikar’s father, in the 1936 elections. Bringing Bilawal forward was necessary for the coming election, when he would be old enough to contest. He would contest his late mother’s seat, for which his grandfather had also sat. However, in the previous election, not only was Zardari able to produce the same result as his wife in her first election, but also get himself elected President.

However, though Bilawal was not making his political debut, he was making his public debut, as this was the first time he was speaking in public. It was not the first time he had been part of political decision-making, for he had been involved by his father whenever a decision, like over Prime Minister, had to be made. However, though the PPP Central Committee met in Naudero, there was no decision on the election, which will be Bilawal’s first. While it seems that the PPP has decided to let the Assemblies complete their tenure, a more crucial decision was to draw Bilawal into the fray. He would be 25 at the time of the election, and thus eligible for Parliament. It seems that with each generation, the heads of the PPP get younger. Zulfikar Ali was 41 when he founded the PPP, Benazir was 26 when she became Co-Chairperson, and Bilawal 20. The youth of the last two had led to the ‘regencies’ of their surviving parents.

It should be noted that regents do not introduce a grand idea, which reverses policy. Bhutto introduced the idea of a people’s party, Benazir introduced the idea of not opposing the USA, and thus jettisoning the socialism which her father had made central to his party, but of actually favouring it. The window was there, for Zulfikar had maintained relations with the USA, and Asif Zardari followed this policy of pro-Americanism.

It would thus be up to Bilawal to go on with this policy, or change it. It should be remembered that both Zulfikar Ali and Benazir studied in the USA before they went to Oxford. Bilawal has gone to Oxford, but not so far the USA. However, there is another aspect of the original Bhutto legacy that Bilawal could reverse, and that is the Leninist heritage, the view of the party as the vanguard. This might be easier, because it has proved easier to follow a fresh policy that might be useful for the party. Bhutto’s anti-Americanism may have fitted in with the ethos of the age, but just as Bhutto’s socialism was dated, so was this kneejerk opposition to the USA. One remnant of this was the belief that the PPP and its leaders deserved special treatment. The state was supposed to be subordinated to the PPP, including such institutions as the armed forces, which were not supposed to carry out coups against it, and the courts, which were supposed to give it the decisions it wanted. This has been problematic in the face of institutions trying to act independently, and exclude other institutions from interfering in their spheres. The PPP wants to avoid its leaders (who must be Zulfikar Ali or his close relatives, such as his descendants) being held accountable for their actions, or losing elections. PPP supporters are so enamoured by Zulfikar Ali’s 1970 combination that they cannot conceive of any voting combination that might defeat it. If ‘the people are the source of power’, that also implies a monopoly on the people.

That is very Leninist, and is something that is also very much within the zeitgeist of the 1970s, but which is perhaps in conflict with institutions which see an existence within themselves, independent of the party. To make the transition to a normal democratic political party, the PPP must jettison this attitude. This perhaps cannot be done by the PPP supporters of the President’s generation, who grew up with the vanguard party very strong, and indeed in the process of implementation. This vanguard party concept must also be sacrificed if the PPP is to rid itself of its present pro-American bias, because it is because of this that the PPP is attractive as a partner to the USA as to others.

It must not be forgotten that the PPP represents something. Among other things, if it has become a platform for the Bhutto dynasty, that would not be simply because of the reverence for the family, but because its members represent something. If there comes a better representative on the horizon, its voters will not allow any loyalty to a dynasty to prevent them switching. It is commonly assumed that the Tehreek Insaf represents a threat to the PML-N, but the PPP should also be wary. Imran Khan is trying to appeal to the same combination of nationalism, combined with social justice, as the PPP came on the scene with. The PPP should also be wary because while it started as the party of change, now it represents the status quo. Though both Asif Zardari and the Tehreek Insaf’s Imran Khan share the same birth year, and both turn 60 this year, it is the latter who has captured the image of youth. The plain truth is that the PPP is still trading on Bhutto, who died 33 years ago, and his daughter, who died five years ago.

An issue that Bilawal will have to deal with, is that of ‘uncles’. As with any young monarch emerging from under the wings of a regent, Bilawal will have to deal with the elders of the party, something his mother had to do, with the complication that one of those ‘uncles’ is his father. It should not be forgotten that one of Benazir’s issues with her mother was over the role of her brother Murtaza. Only this time, the ‘regent’ has already shown that Bilawal’s sisters are there, and potential replacements. Then there is the issue of Murtaza’s children, who are more of a challenge than presented by Mumtaz Bhutto to Benazir. All of that means that the next election will not only be important to him as his first, but also as the one he must win to keep a grip on all the trends that threaten to pull him apart.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation. Email: