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Commentary: Dynasties, democracy and dictatorship

  • Story Highlights
  • The tragic history of the Bhuttos is linked to Pakistan's democratization attempts
  • Benazir was the fourth Bhutto to die an unnatural death since her father was hanged
  • The PPP blamed Pakistan's military or its intelligence agencies for the deaths
  • Appointment of Benazir's son as PPP's future leader is an attempt at political survival
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By Ali Dayan Hasan
Special to CNN
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Ali Dayan Hasan is South Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

KARACHI, Pakistan (CNN) -- Honoring Benazir Bhutto's last wishes, her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) today named her teenage son Bilawal, and her husband, Asif Zardari as its leaders.

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Newly-appointed chairman of the PPP Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto.

Amid weeping supporters chanting Bhutto Zinda Hai (Bhutto Lives), Bilawal Zardari publicly added Bhutto to his name and assumed the position held until her death on December 27 by his mother Benazir and before her by his grandmother Nusrat and grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first democratically elected prime minister.

The PPP is currently the country's most popular political party and, analysts generally agree, is poised to win upcoming elections whenever they are held. The spectacle of the largest political party of a nuclear-armed nation being led by a 19-year-old is unusual even by South Asian standards and the world can be forgiven for looking upon it with some bewilderment. But there is method to the madness.

For one, the young, vulnerable Bhutto-Zardari will simply return to Oxford University to resume his education and learn to cope with the death of his larger-than-life mother. For the foreseeable future, the PPP will be run by his father and the central leadership of the party.

But why a 40-year-old political party with roots across the country needs the titular leadership of a teenager remains a valid question. Of course, the usual explanations: a South Asian penchant for political dynasties and the hold of feudal values if not feudalism itself, provides part of the answer. But there is much more to the political history of the Bhuttos and this succession than a feudal personality cult masquerading as democracy.

Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the PPP in 1968 introducing populist, leftist politics to Pakistan, vowing to oust the military from politics and propagating the idea of the "dignity of the common man" and the relegation of religion to the personal arena. He came to power in the aftermath of the secession of East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh) and gave Pakistan its most enduring, if battered, constitution and an abiding aspiration for parliamentary democracy.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a 1977 army coup and Pakistan has remained effectively under the institutional dictatorship of the military ever since. Even between 1988 and 1999 when the country enjoyed a dysfunctional parliamentary democracy, the military continued to fire governments at will, usually about halfway through their tenure, and ensured that its favored party won the ensuing election. Benazir Bhutto served two truncated terms as prime minister under this dispensation.

The tragic family history of the Bhuttos has become indelibly linked to Pakistan's persistent but unsuccessful attempts at creating a viable democracy.

Benazir was the fourth Bhutto to die an unnatural death. Every decade has seen a Bhutto die under mysterious circumstances since her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 by then military ruler General Zia ul Haq. One brother Shahnawaz was poisoned in 1985 and another, Murtaza, was killed outside his Karachi home in 1996 when Benazir was prime minister.

The PPP has blamed Pakistan's military or its shadowy intelligence agencies or elements therein for all these deaths. The military, on its part, has made no secret of its contempt for the Bhuttos, periodically branding them "traitors" and a "security risk" to Pakistan.

The tug of war between the Bhuttos and the Pakistani army has come to embody the struggle between popular democracy and entrenched institutional dictatorship.

The Bhuttos, far from perfect, frequently failed to live up to the values they espoused but it has been an unequal fight. Over the decades, the Pakistani military has deployed tremendous financial, political and coercive resources to its battle with the Bhutto-led PPP. The military has destabilized PPP governments, attempted repeatedly to create breakaway factions in the party, crafted elaborate negative campaigns against it, tried to prop up ethnic-based parties and religious extremists to beat it into submission, criminalized its leadership and for periods, and banned it outright.

Throughout this time, the PPP has retained its core support base --conservatively estimated at around a third of the electorate -- which has continued to support the party as the sole challenger to the military's monopoly on power. Under siege from Pakistan's military establishment, PPP supporters have fended off these challenges by identifying the "real" PPP as the Bhutto-led party.

In death a stateswoman, Benazir Bhutto too was a callow young woman, only 25 when her father was hanged, when she stepped in to fend off the warring "uncles" -- senior leaders of the PPP -- many of whom were secretly negotiating with the Pakistani military.

The violent death of Benazir Bhutto is the latest twist to the stand-off between the followers of the "Bhuttoist" vision and Pakistan's military establishment. And it provides the best opportunity yet for the military to splinter the PPP and reduce it to a small regional player, pliant and docile or worse, entirely irrelevant.

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It is in this context that the PPP's decision to anoint Bhutto's young son as the now titular head and future leader of the party has to be seen. It is a desperate attempt at political survival in a hostile environment. Whether it succeeds time will tell.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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