LAHORE, Pakistan – He might 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, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 19, surfaced for his first public appearance since he was anointed the titular head of the Pakistan People’s Party, 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 college student defended his backroom appointment, despite his youth, 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 might 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, it certainly will never be the same again.
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. Leaders in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka bear illustrious surnames.
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 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 one-time 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 herself 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 his and his wife’s 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 said 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.”
For Bhutto Zardari, whose formative years have been spent mostly outside Pakistan, grief over the loss of his mother is now compounded by the difficulties of life in a harsh and possibly perilous spotlight.
Bodyguards and other heightened security measures likely will accompany Bhutto Zardari for the rest of his life. Given his family’s tragic history, some observers were horrified by his ascension as head of the PPP, viewing it as a virtual death sentence for such a young man. A spokeswoman for Oxford said the university was reviewing its security arrangements for him.