Cracks In The House Of Bhutto

Differences between President Zardari and his son Bilawal underline tensions within Pakistan's largest political party ahead of a historic election

On April 4, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was to kick-start its election campaign at a rally in the village of Garhi Khuda Baksh to mark the death anniversary of founder-leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Security threats had turned it into a small meeting, to be held in the district town of Naudero, in the presence of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, 24. Less than a week after news filtered out of his departure from Pakistan in the aftermath of an alleged tiff with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari, 57, the PPP scion flew back into Pakistan. According to reports, denied by PPP, Bilawal had an argument with his father over the party's performance in power, and his aunt Faryal Talpur's refusal to accommodate Bilawal's recommendations for tickets in Sindh.

Faryal's claim to fame is that she is Zardari's sister and runs the day-to-day affairs of PPP on behalf of the Pakistan president. According to one analyst, she is nothing more than Zardari's glorified messenger, and has nothing to do with any policy decision. The same analyst believes that apart from Sindh, where Zardari personally takes care of everything himself, he has given a free hand to Anwar Saifullah in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Yousaf Raza Gilani in south Punjab and Mian Manzoor Wattoo in central Punjab. Others insist that there is a deep resentment within the party over Faryal's interference in administrative affairs.

Many do believe that there were some differences between the father and son, while others say it is entirely untrue. "Why do people forget that Zardari is a Sindhi wadera (feudal) and Bilawal is his only son? Sindhi waderas pamper their sons and spoil them; they don't fight with them," says an analyst who keeps a close watch on political affairs in Pakistan. Others are of the opinion that in the run-up to an election, every major political party faces internal squabbles over the award of party tickets and other campaign-related decisions. The same process is taking place in PPP, which probably involves discussion, debate and disagreement between the most important stakeholders within the party. But these disagreements should not be confused with a schism between Zardari and Bilawal.

It is no secret that all three Zardari children, including daughters Bakhtawar, 23, and Asifa, 20, are quite close to their father. But this is a family that is, above all, concerned with their physical survival. On the one hand, PPP does not have a populist leader to lead its election campaign. On the other, there is serious disagreement on whether Bilawal should be politically deployed, and therefore exhausted, at so early a stage in his political career. Bilawal is a young, ideologically-driven politician who sees himself as the heir to the Bhutto legacy. He remains politically untested, but if PPP is to have a political future, it rests with him. If something were to happen to Bilawal, not only would Zardari lose his son, but PPP would lose its political future. Security concerns around the young Bilawal are widely acknowledged as real. With defeat a distinct possibility, PPP would rather prefer to save Bilawal for the next elections due in 2018.

Save Bilawal For The Future

The question on everybody's mind is whether Bilawal will lead the campaign for the forthcoming May 11 general elections. Like others in the fray, PPP needs 172 seats in the 342-member assembly to form the government. According to sources close to PPP, after some brainstorming sessions a decision was taken in January this year to not expose Bilawal and jeopardise his career. It is a well thought-out and rational strategy. If PPP is unable to form a government after the elections, Bilawal can gradually take charge of the party in the post-election scenario, while cutting his teeth in politics playing the role of an Opposition leader.

Says PPP's Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, former adviser to the prime minister: "PPP is going through a genera-tional change, so naturally there would be some difference in the way father and son approach different issues. Bilawal is young but he has had more exposure to politics than others of his age. He has lived his life under the close guidance of his mother, late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. He has been part of many important diplomatic meetings as well, so his exposure is different. I think he is more sensitive to media criticism and his approach to politics is somewhat more idealistic than the present PPP leadership."

An Open-ended Election

These are possibly going to be the fairest elections since 1970, where all parties have a level playing field because of a neutral caretaker government in power now, that took over in March. PPP has candidates all over the country to contest elections, which in itself is a big achievement. Zardari cannot campaign himself because he is the president and courts have prohibited him from engaging in political activity. Some optimists believe that being the largest mainstream political party, PPP has an edge over its rivals, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and former cricketer Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in terms of its nationwide structure and outreach.

Others believe it will not do that well. Senior journalist Iftikhar Ahmad says "PPP is fighting a war that it has already lost because of its non-serious attitude towards the issues within the party and outside the party. They will not be able to perform as well as their leadership's claims, but Zardari will try to be in a bargaining position with whichever party achieves majority, so that he can survive".

Sindh is PPP's traditional base and will remain so by and large, despite the quality of governance. Apart from a few incumbency-related losses, PPP remains the largest party in the province, and is likely to retain its status there. The real battle will be in Punjab. Since 1977, PPP has been in long-term decline in central and northern Punjab despite having Yousaf Raza Gilani, who is from south Punjab, as prime minister for over four years of PPP's five-year term.

The big question is: Will PPP retain its support in south Punjab? Many feel PPP's election will be won or lost in south Punjab. Some say that despite discrimination against south Punjab by the PML(N) government in the province, PML(N) will better PPP there as the Sharifs have been quite successful at selling the myth of good governance. Observers say even if PPP loses this year's polls, so long as it wins over 70 seats, it will effectively hold on to its core political base. But with anything less than 70, PPP will face an uphill battle for political survival. Journalist and political analyst Nusrat Javeed says, "I don't think they (PPP) should expect to form the next government. Even they are clear about it."

Sohail Warraich, a keen observer of Punjabi politics, believes that "it will be a two-way fight, not the three-way battle that some are predicting". "These 'two' will differ from region to region; in some parts it will be PTI-PML(N), in others PPP-PML(N), but rarely will it be between PPP-PTI. The reason is simple: People limit their choices on election day and only vote for those they think stand a chance of winning, because everyone is afraid of venturing into unknown territory."

Non-linear Equations

Warraich believes citizens of urban Punjab have a double-edged relationship with PML(N). There is the continued love of the urban middle class for the business-friendly party founded by Nawaz Sharif. Then there is the fear factor. Most Pakistani families do not allow for any independence in the political orientation of their members. These voters are afraid that if they leave the PML(N) fold, they will be cut off from their biradiri (clan), which, in this case, is related to economic interest. Over the years, PML(N)) has been deserted by social, political and religious groups who once backed them, but so far, there haven't been any desertions from their trading class vote bank.

This is why many are of the opinion that these will be Nawaz Sharif's elections to lose. For that, though, he will have to expand his political base beyond northern and central Punjab to make enough gains to lead a coalition.

In all this, the wild card is Imran Khan, who is Sharif's natural political competitor, not the PPP's. Central and northern Punjab and the Hazara division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are traditionally PML(N) power bases. But now they have a new competitor in Khan's pti, which might emerge as the third largest party. Eventually though, it may all depend on voter turnout. As the saying in these parts goes: "Elections mein ek hawa banti hai, aapko nahi pata ki woh kya rukh legi" (There is always a wind during the elections, you just don't know which direction it will take).

Says journalist Khaled Ahmed, "Imran Khan's strategy is based on an assumption of victory inspired by divine revelation. Nawaz Sharif's strategy is based on assumption of victory inspired by predictions of pollsters. Zardari's strategy, meanwhile, is the strongest and more realistic. It is based on the assumption of defeat." Zardari will rely on Sharif and Imran Khan's well known antipathy towards each other to retain some kind of hold in Parliament. In all likelihood, Imran Khan will not go into coalition with PML-N.

PPP will be more amenable to a tie-up than the two other parties. If it does manage to coax a coalition at the centre, Zardari can once again hope to manoeuvre himself into the presidential seat. It might be worth remembering that the president's office offers Zardari immunity from prosecution in a series of corruption-related cases he is mired in. It is the barely-hidden ace up the wily president's sleeve.

(Originally published in India Today)

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