YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bhutto's son reveals top priority: college

Pakistan's teenage opposition leader asks for privacy at Oxford.

January 09, 2008|Henry Chu and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

LAHORE, PAKISTAN — He may be the world's only national political party leader who is still a teenage college student. Or whose breathless female fans plead that he not be assassinated "because he's so hot."

On Tuesday, 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari surfaced for his first public appearance since he was anointed the titular head of the Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, which his mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, led before she was killed in a gun and bomb attack Dec. 27.

Composed and articulate, the reedy, bespectacled college student defended his backroom appointment, despite his youth and inexperience, and asked the media to respect his privacy while he completed his undergraduate degree at Oxford University.

"Politics is . . . in my blood, and although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn," Bhutto Zardari told reporters during a brief news conference at a London hotel. "However, my immediate priority is to return to Oxford to continue my studies."

He added that he was "only too willing to give time to talk to journalists, and I should like to continue a good relationship, but in moderation. . . . When I am at Oxford, I hope that I can be left alone."

That may be a tall order now that the world's attention is upon him, as well as the burden of history and the expectations of so many fellow Pakistanis. Although life was never completely normal for Bhutto Zardari as the eldest child of an internationally famous figure who hobnobbed with the world's elite, it will certainly never be the same.

His appointment by party officials Dec. 30 as joint head of the PPP, along with his father, threw into sharp relief the propensity toward dynastic politics that pervades South Asia. In India, three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family have held the nation's premiership, with a fourth-generation scion being groomed to continue the tradition. Leaders in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka bear illustrious surnames. Bhutan is ruled by a king. So, until recently, was Nepal.

Bhutto Zardari's role in the party will be a ceremonial one at least until he finishes his studies, with his father, Asif Ali Zardari, acting as regent in the meantime.

But thrusting such a major, and potentially dangerous, responsibility on him raises difficult questions about what the future holds for a youth who only a few years ago was devouring Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books bought for him by his adoring mother.

"He'll have to grow up very quickly now," said Shafqat Mehmood, an analyst here in Pakistan and a friend of Benazir Bhutto.

Her son inherits a family mantle stained heavily with blood. The PPP was founded by Bhutto's father, a onetime president and prime minister of Pakistan who was hanged by a usurping military dictator. One of her brothers died under mysterious circumstances, and the family believes he was poisoned; the other was killed in an ambush by Pakistani police. Bhutto was the target of deadly attacks before the one that claimed her life.

In her will, she named her husband, Zardari, as head of the party. But the PPP is so closely identified with her side of the family that the party's core officials, apparently at Zardari's suggestion, picked as co-chairman their only son, who promptly added "Bhutto" to his name to emphasize the continuation of the pedigree.

"It was recognized at this moment of crisis the party needed a close association with my mother through the bloodline," Bhutto Zardari acknowledged at his news conference. "Also, it was important to give hope to the new generation of Pakistanis who were looking not just at the elections [Feb. 18] but beyond."

Installing the teenager as the PPP's standard-bearer was an astute move in a society where loyalty to personalities and ruling families trumps loyalty to organizations and institutions, analysts said. The powerfully emotional symbolism of a Bhutto at the head of the party is impossible to underestimate. It can unify disparate elements and sets the seal of authenticity on the main PPP, versus breakaway factions headed by disaffected members.

As a fresh young face, Bhutto Zardari can also offset some of the suspicion and hostility surrounding his father, who has been dogged by corruption charges and who was nicknamed "Mr. 10%" for his alleged taste for bribes when his wife was prime minister.

But keeping control of the PPP firmly within the family drew plenty of criticism from those who noted the irony in a party whose late leader insisted to all who would listen on the need for democracy in Pakistan.

"This is not democracy. This is a dynasty system. The Bhutto family holds the power," complained Lahore resident Muhammad Iqbal, 27, a few days after Bhutto Zardari's elevation was announced.

On Tuesday, the party heir defended his appointment by the PPP's executive committee. "It wasn't handed on like some piece of family furniture," he said. "They asked me to do it and I did."

Los Angeles Times Articles