Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has emerged as a leading voice of opposition to Imran Khan’s government in recent months. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is unwell and in prison. PML(N) leaders, including Mr. Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, face several legal challenges over corruption cases and have gone relatively quiet.
This has left a vacuum in the Opposition politics and Mr. Bhutto-Zardari has stepped into this vacuum “with surprising ease”, said journalist Fahd Husain. “Gone is the awkwardness of speech and shyness of demeanour that once marked his political appearances. He is saying the right things, hitting the right tones and getting the right response.” Mr. Husain added that if Mr. Khan’s government is facing any real, hard-hitting and sustained opposition, it is from Mr. Bhutto-Zardari. “The PML-N will need to up its game if it wants to steal the thunder from the young Bilawal.”
According to news anchor Gharidah Farooqi, Mr. Bhutto-Zardari has challenged not just Mr. Khan’s government, but also the mighty military establishment, an element that went missing in Pakistani politics since the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Ms. Farooqi believes the youth were neglected for a long time. They found some hope in Mr. Khan, but feel dejected by the performance of Prime Minister Khan. “Bilawal Bhutto is filling this vacuum. He has capacity, vision, strength and age by his side. The downfall of the ‘House of Sharif’ in Punjab and the bubble-vacuum of ‘tabdeeli’ aka change at the Centre have provided the much needed space to Bilawal.”
Ms. Farooqi said it is Mr. Bhutto-Zardari’s fiery, aggressive style with a pinch of political sarcasm taking on both Mr. Khan and military heads that is attracting the public, especially the youth, towards him.
Even his political opponents have acknowledged Mr. Bhutto-Zardari’s rise. Recently, Ms. Nawaz, vice-president of PML(N), reached out to Mr. Bhutto-Zardari. She thanked him on Twitter for visiting her father to which Mr. Bhutto-Zardari responded, “We are all people first and politicians second.”
Mohammad Zubair, former Sindh Governor and a senior leader of the PML(N), said Mr. Bhutto-Zardari has truly emerged as an effective Opposition leader. “He has shown remarkable courage and command over macro issues of Pakistan. Because of his understanding of core issues and courage to speak his mind — a rare quality in Pakistan these days — Bilawal is respected among all Opposition parties, including the PML-N.”
Asked if Ms. Nawaz’s appointment of PML(N) vice-president and her silence on the government is helping Mr. Bhutto-Zardari’s rise, Mr. Zubair said Ms. Nawaz has been silent for entirely different reasons. “Her own legal challenge, but more importantly her father’s legal issues have restricted her political activities. The recent reorganisation of the PML(N) was overdue and Maryam rightly makes her official entry as the vice-president. She’s not competing with Bilawal as the two have completely different support groups.”
Many analysts believe disgruntled PML-N workers were not happy with the silence of the party leadership, especially Ms. Nawaz’s, and were pointing out how Mr. Bhutto-Zardari had taken up the mantle of the Opposition.
Ms. Nawaz is not Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and the PML-N is not the PPP, said Ms. Farooqi, the anchor. “Maryam’s political future is still bleak; Bilawal’s is promising and shining.”
But it doesn’t mean that things are easy for Mr. Bhutto-Zardari. Mr. Bhutto-Zardari, who has captured national political atttention, should also work hard in Punjab, where Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is in power.
“Bilawal has so far failed to seize the space in Punjab. It will be Punjab that can make him the next Prime Minister,” said Ms. Farooqi.
The PPP is almost nonexistent in Punjab, a province which it dominated decades ago. Mr. Bhutto-Zardari will surely have to focus his energies on Punjab while trying to rebuild the party nationally.
Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore