Bhutto’s son and husband take the helm of her party

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Acting in accordance with her last wishes, Benazir Bhutto’s party Sunday named her 19-year-old son as its ceremonial leader and her widowed husband as the executor of its day-to-day affairs as violence that had flared in Pakistan after her assassination subsided.

The decision to bypass experienced senior politicians in the party hierarchy showed the slain opposition leader’s steely determination to posthumously ensure the continuation of one of the country’s most enduring political dynasties, even though her son is too young to run for office and her husband is shadowed by corruption allegations.

Bhutto was only 25 when her politician father, facing execution at the hands of a military dictator, told her he wanted her to carry on his life’s work.

The party’s move, three days after his mother’s assassination, thrust into the spotlight Bilawal Zardari, a young man whom Bhutto had kept out of the public eye as much as possible during an upbringing that took place almost exclusively outside Pakistan.

Dark-haired, slender and composed, the Oxford history student bears a striking resemblance, both in looks and demeanor, to his mother. That has drawn comparisons by some to the public emergence of Britain’s Prince William upon the death of a mother he too greatly resembled, Princess Diana.

Underscoring the weight of legacy, Bhutto’s son, who has two younger sisters, was introduced at a news conference in his ancestral village of Naudero as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the first public use of his maternal surname.

“The party’s long struggle for democracy will continue with renewed vigor,” he said, speaking in even-toned, lightly British-accented English. “My mother always said democracy is the best revenge.”

Although there is generally warm sentiment toward Bilawal Zardari, his father is a far more polarizing figure. In the eyes of many of Bhutto’s admirers, Asif Ali Zardari, whom she wed in an arranged marriage, has tarnished her legacy.

A Cabinet minister in Bhutto’s two administrations as prime minister, Zardari subsequently spent eight years in prison on corruption charges. Although he has denied all allegations, so widespread was his reputation for taking kickbacks that he was known as “Mr. 10%.”

In passing the political torch to Bhutto’s son and husband, her Pakistan People’s Party pointedly refrained from seeking any delay in the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place Jan. 8. The country’s Election Commission, controlled by supporters of President Pervez Musharraf, is to announce a decision today about the timing of the vote.

Analysts said moving ahead swiftly with the polling would allow Bhutto’s party to capitalize on what could be a large sympathy vote in addition to the party’s already formidable voter base. That, they said, could more than make up for whatever organizational disadvantages the party would suffer due to disarray in the wake of its leader’s death.

Because Bilawal cannot run for office until he is 25 and his father has said he will not seek a seat in parliament, the party’s candidate for prime minister, in the event of victory, would probably be Bhutto’s deputy, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who stood in for her during her years in exile.

With Bhutto’s party saying it would run in the elections, the party of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said it would almost certainly field candidates as well. Sharif, another former prime minister, had said after Bhutto was killed Thursday that his party would boycott the poll, but he also had previously reversed threats to sit out the contest when Bhutto’s party refused to join in a boycott call.

Zardari said the party was determined to participate in the elections “despite this dangerous situation” because that was his late wife’s wish. Emotional supporters invoked her name again and again, chanting, “Benazir, princess of heaven!”

Senior aides to Musharraf have indicated that the Election Commission would probably accede to the wishes of Bhutto’s party in regard to the election date. It would be politically difficult for the government to force a delay if the other parties are prepared to go ahead, and if a lull in violence holds.

Sunday was the last of three days of government-decreed mourning for Bhutto; schools and offices are due to reopen today. The country was rocked by riots and looting almost from the moment her death was announced, with most of the violence concentrated in her hometown, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

The violence eased Sunday, but the death toll stood at nearly 50 and Karachi’s streets were pockmarked with burned-out buildings and littered with the charred hunks of torched vehicles. Property damage ran into the many millions of dollars.

The Bush administration refrained from taking any position on the timing of the vote or the accession of Bhutto’s son and husband, saying only that it hoped the polling would be free and fair.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel, in Texas with President Bush, said, “It is up to the political parties of Pakistan to choose their leaders.

“We believe it is important for Pakistan to confront extremists and continue on the path to democracy by holding free and fair elections,” he said. “The timing of those elections will be up to the Pakistanis.”

The United States had hoped that Bhutto, armed with a strong election mandate, might have been able to forge a power-sharing accord with Musharraf, who has just embarked on a second five-year term as president, taking office after a vote by lawmakers that was sharply contested by his political opponents.

That opposition, manifested in a series of unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, was widely believed to have been the main reason Musharraf imposed emergency rule, akin to martial law, for six weeks ending earlier this month. The Pakistani leader has given up his post as head of the army, but governing in concert with Bhutto would have helped cement a transition to civilian rule.

Husain Haqqani, the director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, said Pakistan’s dynastic traditions probably drove the decision to anoint father and son.

“Politics always has a sentimental dimension all over the world,” he said. “It is the reason the Kennedys and the Nehru-Gandhis get elected.”

Ayaz Amir, a columnist for the Dawn newspaper, said the accession of Bilawal Zardari and his father had “feudal” overtones.

“It doesn’t reflect well on our politics, but that was the compulsion the People’s Party faced,” he said. “It’s an effort to keep the Bhutto mystique alive.”

At Sunday’s news conference in Naudero, in Sindh province, the elder Zardari demanded a United Nations investigation of the assassination.

Bhutto’s party has sharply disputed the government’s version of events surrounding the attack against her, particularly the contention that she was not killed by an assassin’s bullets. The government said she died of a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of the vehicle’s sunroof as a suicide bomber struck.

Bhutto aides who viewed and washed the body said gunshot entry and exit wounds were clearly visible, and opposition lawyer Athar Minallah, a member of the board of the hospital where she died, asserted that doctors were pressured into silence.

The Dawn television station late Saturday aired previously unseen amateur photos of the assassination scene, showing a clean-shaven young man in sunglasses aiming a gun at Bhutto’s back. Just behind him is a man wrapped in a white shawl, believed to have been the suicide bomber.

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.