Features | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Next Generation of Political Leaders

A youth bulge is being accompanied by the emergence of young politicians from old political families. Can they gain power?

By Arif Rafiq for

In late December, on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s assassination and with his family’s mausoleum in view, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stood before a massive crowd at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, a village in Sindh province, and was anointed as the last great hope for Pakistan’s most prominent political dynasty.

Bilawal’s father, Asif Ali Zardari — Pakistan’s president and the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) —informed the audience that his son’s political training has just begun. Bilawal, his father said, will not only be learning politics from his elders, but he will also be learning about Pakistan from the masses. Having lived most of his life outside of Pakistan, and, until recently, having been unable to speak any of Pakistan’s major languages — Bilawal has much to learn. That Bilawal has been chairman of the PPP for five years is incidental. The twenty-four-year-old was a mere teenager when his mother, Benazir, was assassinated in late 2007. He was brought into the limelight merely to ensure that no one else took his place.

Bilawal soon disappeared. With his father running the party, Bilawal was largely out of public view until he graduated from Oxford in 2010. An audience member at an Oxford University town hall discussion for Pakistanis complained that Bilawal made no effort to engage the Pakistani student populace, though he would one day be leading their country. Bilawal limited his public engagements to PPP loyalists, giving English-language speeches packed with Urdu slogans about martyrdom and sacrifice. In a 2009 speech that was widely mocked, Bilawal screamed that he and his party members will give their blood, heads, and lives in their supposed struggle for Pakistan’s masses.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Bilawal as a political joke. He has grown in the past two years. In the wake of another assassination — that of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was killed by one of his bodyguards in 2010 because of his outspoken opposition to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws—Bilawal seemed to gain a voice. After Taseer’s murder Bilawal began speaking out against extremism and in defense of the slain governor. Though the speech was delivered in English and in London, it had none of the vagueness or verbal hedging characteristic that most Pakistani politicians use when speaking about radicalism. Subsequent speeches by Bilawal, including one earlier this month, have also been marked by a similarly unapologetic tone.

Can Bilawal develop into a strong voice for Pakistani liberals, an increasingly embattled lot? His speech in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh suggests that it’s at least possible. Speaking in Urdu, Bilawal painted an image of a polarized Pakistan. There was the Pakistan of those on the side of truth — the “martyrs” Governor Taseer, Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti, anti-Taliban minister Bashir Bilour, and, of course, his mother, Benazir. And then there was the Pakistan of the “liars”: the authoritarians and terrorists who opposed democracy, and the apologists afraid of calling terrorism by its name.

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How effective was the speech? While Pakistani political pundits offered considerable praise, the crowd, though sizable, was not charged or fired up. Bilawal has an almost sacred political lineage colored with the blood of his slain elders. But he remains a stranger to Pakistanis and will have to increase his public exposure. He is reportedly not only being taught Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, but also Sindhi — mother tongue of his family and the party’s fervent base — and Punjabi, the predominant language of Pakistan’s largest province. Bilawal’s ability to speak these languages will increase his ability to connect with voters and allow the party to present itself as Pakistan’s sole party with a truly national reach.

While Bilawal spoke in December, Zardari watched from behind, alternating between displays of pride and amusement, perhaps reflecting on his own political fate. In September, Zardari’s term as president ends. Though he could seek re-election, the Supreme Court could disqualify him from the presidency as he is also the head of a political party and involved in partisan activity. And so the young man’s period of “training” could be shorter than expected. The absence of immunity from the office of the president makes Zardari vulnerable to prosecution. Bilawal becomes eligible to run for office when he turns twenty-five this September. It’s possible that he will run for a safe National Assembly seat vacated by a party placeholder.

Bilawal will need to absorb his father’s lessons from the school of hard knocks and learn how to mesh with other politicians, not to mention the bureaucracy, judiciary, media, and military. Zardari — who was once imprisoned — has proved to be a cunning political strategist adept at running a political ground game and surviving attacks from multiple power centers. In contrast, Bilawal appears to be quite sheltered and soft.

Bilawal would be mistaken if he thinks that his youthful age gives him a distinct advantage given the country’s youth bulge. He must compete with a more capable and experienced crop of young politicians. Pakistani politics is, in fact, on the cusp of a generational shift. The civilian power brokers who have dominated since the 1980s and 1990s — including the Sharif brothers, Zardari, Altaf Hussain, and the Chaudhries of Gujarat — are now approaching their 60s. For many of them, this will be their final decade of active political life. Due to the hereditary nature of Pakistani politics, the established political families are preparing to pass the baton on to the next generation.

There has been a staggered introduction of twenty and thirty something’s into Pakistani politics over the past decade. The 2002 elections brought Hina Rabbani Khar and Sughra Imam, respectively, into the National Assembly and Punjab Provincial Assembly. Both have matured into political players. Khar has been twice elected to her family’s traditional seat, managing to do so from two different parties. She rose through the ranks of the finance ministry before being appointed as foreign minister in 2011. With a safe assembly seat and two high profile ministerships under her belt, and having played an essential role in improving ties with the U.S., India, and Afghanistan, Khar will remain someone to watch in Pakistani politics. Imam, like Khar, comes from a feudal family and left the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) party for the PPP, which allotted her a Senate seat. A consummate insider, she regularly takes part in meetings with senior foreign delegations and received U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the airport in 2011.

Bilawal’s major competitors down the road could be mainly women like Khar and Imam. Some of the male scions of leading families have fallen short of expectations. Wharton-educated Moonis Elahi was being groomed to be Punjab’s next chief minister, a position his father had once held, but corruption charges — of which he has since been acquitted — brought that project to a halt. Meanwhile, the sons of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif appear to be disinterested in politics. Hamza Shahbaz, the son of Shahbaz Sharif — Nawaz’s brother and currently Punjab’s chief minister — is a National Assembly member strongly connected with the party’s grassroots, but a controversy surrounding an alleged secret second marriage has hurt his image.

Ultimately, Bilawal may face off with Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif. Her entry into politics in 2012 was aimed at developing an alternative to Hamza as the party’s heir, and challenging the rising star of youth favorite Imran Khan. She has proved to be quite energetic and engaging in person and on social media. An active speaker at colleges and universities, she is her father’s primary means of reaching out to women and the youth. She will likely run for a National Assembly seat this year. Maryam reportedly has been doing PhD work on “post-9/11 radicalization in Pakistan,” though, somewhat ironically, she questions whether Osama bin Laden is really dead.

Despite what might be a penchant for conspiracy theories, Maryam has great potential to lead the ongoing evolution of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which was once tied to the military, but is now a staunch defender of democracy and normalizing ties with India.

Pakistan’s recently updated electoral rolls indicate that nearly fifty percent of registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 35. The general elections this spring could very well be a fight for the youth by the youth. For heir apparent Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and apparent heir Maryam Nawaz Sharif, this year might feature the first battle of what could be an enduring rivalry.

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Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at @arifcrafiq.