Bhutto scion aims to focus on Pakistan's youth, break with old politics

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is less than half the age of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, 74, and former cricket superstar Imran Khan, 71

January 24, 2024 10:29 am | Updated 10:29 am IST - LARKANA

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Larkana, Pakistan, January 16, 2024.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), speaks during an interview with Reuters in Larkana, Pakistan, January 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Youth appeal and ambitious plans to combat climate change form the core of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's effort to become Prime Minister of Pakistan, which, if successful, would make him its youngest Premier since his mother Benazir was in office.

As general elections near on Feb. 8, the 35-year-old, a former Foreign Minister and scion of a family that gave the nation two Prime Ministers, called for new ideas and leadership to calm political and economic instability.

"The implications of the decisions taken today are going to be faced by the youth of Pakistan," Mr. Bhutto Zardari told Reuters in Larkana, his hometown in the southern province of Sind, a family bastion.

"I think it would be better if they were allowed to make those decisions."

About two-thirds of Pakistan's population of 241 million is younger than 30, while its Prime Ministers since 2000 have been older than 61, on average.

The Oxford-educated Bhutto Zardari is less than half the age of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, 74, whom analysts consider the frontrunner in next month's election, and former cricket superstar Imran Khan, 71, who won the last election in 2018.

The eventual winner faces the task of reviving a struggling $350-billion economy grappling with historic inflation and an unstable rupee currency that limit growth and job opportunities for the young.

The South Asian nation received a $3-billion loan programme from the IMF in July that averted a sovereign debt default in a standby arrangement set to expire this spring.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari plans to tap into widespread anger, saying he has a concrete plan to provide free electricity and boost social safety programmes, despite fiscal constraints.

"What we propose is to completely restructure Pakistan's development model, putting the threat of climate change front and centre," he said, in a reflection of his party's election manifesto.

Making a promise rare in Pakistan, it aims to ensure that funds exceeding $10 billion pledged last year go to fight climate change, after super floods in 2022 that displaced more than 7 million people.

A member of Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty, Mr. Bhutto Zardari spoke in an interview during a gruelling four-week campaign that took him to more than 33 towns, while other parties began canvassing just last week.

He is the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated while on a campaign trail in 2007, and the grandson of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, hanged by a military dictator in 1979, both still venerated by Pakistanis.

If Mr. Bhutto Zardari won the election, subject to the vagaries of government formation, calculations show he could be just 25 days short of his mother's age on entering office in 1988, at the earliest.

"I haven't actually counted, but ... I think she was the youngest," he responded, when asked how he rated his chances.

Alternative choice

However, his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has lost space to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Sharif and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Khan, who have been locked in a bruising political battle for more than a decade.

Positioning himself as an alternate to them in 2024, he recently called on supporters of Khan to vote for him while their leader is in jail.

In the 2013 elections, the PPP came second after Sharif's party, garnering 42 of the 342 seats up for grabs. In 2018, with 54 seats, it was runner-up to the parties of both Sharif and Khan.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari ruled out joining hands with either contender, however, saying he preferred to form a government with independent candidates.

"You know, lots of independent politicians, probably the highest (number) in our history, are taking part in the coming elections," he added.

Most of the independents belong to Khan's party, which lost the right this month to contest on a single platform, making the approaching election the most open in recent times.

However, one analyst felt the role of Prime Minister might be a tough goal for Mr. Bhutto Zardari, saying his party had struggled to build its political strength.

"One might be tempted to look at Bilawal as a dark horse candidate for Prime Minister," said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, as he appeared to be favoured by the military and had been foreign minister.

"But I don't see him as prime minister material just yet," Mr. Kugelman added. "The election will likely lead to a coalition government, and Mr. Bilawal could be in the mix for a cabinet-level position, but the top slot is likely too much of a reach."

Instead, Pakistan's army may prefer more experienced leaders, such as Sharif, he said.

Analysts believe the powerful military has thrown its backing to Sharif following a standoff with Khan, giving the former an edge in a country where army generals exert undue influence over setting up governments.

The military denies the accusations, and says it remains apolitical.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari asked if he thought the military-backed Sharif, responded, "He's certainly giving the impression that he is relying on something other than the people of Pakistan to become Prime Minister for the fourth time."

Questions of transparency will hover over the 2024 elections, just as with earlier ones, he added, but he and his party hoped to win against expectations.

Pushed into the political fray as a teenager in 2007, after his mother's assassination, Mr. Bhutto Zardari later inherited her party but steered clear of politics until he finished his education.

His father, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected President after Benazir's death.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari won a parliamentary seat in his first contest in 2018, which was followed by a 16-month stint as Foreign Minister, until August 2023.

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