Bilawal Bhutto Zardari picks up the mantle

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, left, raises the hand of his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as the 24-year-old launched his political career with a fiery speech before thousands of cheering supporters observing the fifth anniversary of his mother Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

GARHI KHUDA BAKHSH: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the only son of assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, it was a passionate debut and his Urdu was good but not flawless, the rhetoric powerful if familiar.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 24, launched his own political career yesterday with an emotional appeal from the dynasty’s heartland.

He made his long-awaited debut delivering the main anniversary address before an estimated crowd of 200,000 gathered at the mausoleum of Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered on her return from exile, in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh.

Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, rode to power on a wave of sympathy in elections that marked Pakistan’s return to democracy. He has since repeatedly confounded his many enemies, but does not inspire the loyalty given to his late wife’s family.

The fortunes of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rest instead on whether its traditional voters, mostly the rural poor, warm to the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP founder, who was hanged in 1979 on the orders of a military dictator who overthrew him in a coup.

A general election is due in the spring and although Mr Bhutto Zardari will be too young to stand – the lower age limit is 25 – he will act as a figurehead for the campaign.

The law graduate, who was educated at Oxford, has in the past appeared to resist pressure to enter politics, pulling out of a series of events in Britain in the summer of 2010.

Critics have sought to paint him as a foreigner with no sense of the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Others have suggested that the couple’s youngest daughter, Aseefa, has a greater appetite for power.

But yesterday, speaking with a passion that reminded some of his mother, he showed a full command of the PPP’s key theme of martyrdom.

“Bhutto is an emotion, a love,” he said at one point during the half-hour speech. “However many Bhuttos you kill, more Bhuttos will emerge from every house.”

Although delivered in English- accented Urdu, the speech won initial plaudits.

Hamid Mir, a journalist, said that he had been pleasantly surprised by Mr Bhutto Zardari’s fluency. “He seemed to be speaking spontaneously in Urdu. That should help the PPP to motivate its vote bank in the next elections.”

Kamran Khan, a political analyst, said that the speech, fiercely critical of the failure of Pakistan’s judiciary to secure a conviction for those accused of his mother’s murder, was more aggressive than he had expected.

Taking aim at Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the scion of one of the world’s most charismatic dynasties questioned the priorities of the Supreme Court, which has pursued a long campaign to reopen corruption charges against both Benazir Bhutto and President Zardari.

“I asked the top judge, ‘Can’t you see the blood of Benazir Bhutto on the roads of Rawalpindi?’

“I, as an heir of Bhutto, ask why the killers of my mother have not been punished, while you have time to hold the trial of my mother’s grave,” Mr Bhutto Zardari said. The address was also notable for a strong attack on the Taliban’s attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl advocate for female education.

Security was tight. Surveillance helicopters hovered overhead and police said that more than 15,000 officers had been deployed, as well as about 500government paramilitary forces guarding the venue at Garhi Khuda.

Yesterday’s speech was the culmination of years of preparation by the PPP’s leadership. Mr Bhutto Zardari, who turns 25 in September, was eased into the roll of party co-chairman in 2010 and took effective control when his father underwent medical treatment a year ago.

Claims that the PPP-led Government’s five years of power have left the economy in good shape are likely to prompt mirthless laughter in much of Pakistan, particularly in urban areas.

Imran Khan, the former cricketer, is hoping to capitalise on widespread disaffection at next year’s polls.

But the nature of Pakistan’s electoral politics and the enduring strength of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz party mean that few analysts expect the elections to deliver sweeping political change.

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