Bilawal Zardari Bhutto: high hopes rest on Pakistan's youngest foreign minister

Apart from his duties on the world stage, his Pakistan Peoples Party sees an opportunity to raise its profile as a contender for power

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Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was just 19 years old when the assassination of his mother catapulted him from carefree student to leader of one of Pakistan's biggest political parties.

Three days after a Taliban bomb killed Benazir Bhutto in 2007, the Oxford history student took over as chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

His precocious rise to political prominence has continued with his appointment as the youngest foreign minister in Pakistan's history, taking one of the most high-profile postings in the new Shehbaz Sharif government at just 33.

The role places Mr Bhutto Zardari on the world stage and at the head of attempts to soothe relations with the US after former prime minister Imran Khan accused Washington of plotting to have him removed.

But analysts also see the appointment as a step towards achieving the hopes of the storied Bhutto family and their party of returning to power in Pakistan.

As the son of Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister twice, and Asif Ali Zardari, who was president, Bilawal is the epitome of Pakistan's dynastic political elite. His grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded the PPP and was president and prime minister before he was hanged by a military dictator in 1979.

That background, steeped in power and blood, has seen him grow up with great privilege but also taught him the perils of Pakistan's life-and-death political arena.

Long groomed for power at the helm of the PPP, Mr Bhutto Zardari's new post will address criticism that he lacks experience in government, said Bilal Ghani of polling company Gallup Pakistan.

Mr Bhutto Zardari is perceived to have performed well as a leader of the centre-left PPP, and appears to have played a role in the machinations to build a coalition to oust Mr Khan. He has held meetings with Nawaz Sharif, ousted former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, including while Sharif was in prison in 2019.

In terms of governance, however, he remains untested.

“In some sense this is a test case for him to show that he is beyond just politics, that he has some administrative credentials as well,” Mr Ghani said.

Bhutto Zardari finds himself in government as part of a coalition of unusual breadth. Parties ranging from leftists to the religious right joined forces against Mr Khan. Yet keeping them unified in the face of an economic crisis and significant grass-roots support for Mr Khan will be difficult.

Pakistan's other main political dynasty, the Sharifs, are now in the ascendency and competition could erupt between two families who each see themselves as Pakistan's rightful leaders.

Before his appointment, Mr Bhutto Zardari hinted at the egos involved when he admitted his party would find it “difficult to stomach” him working for a Sharif.

Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party portrays the PPP leader as just a new face to Pakistan's entitled dynastic elite.

Mr Bhutto Zardari says he is committed to democracy, for all his privileged background.

“Criticise nepotism and dynastic politics as much as you want, but whoever the people of Pakistan decide that is what at the end of the day should matter,” he said recently.

Meanwhile, the PPP will hope that its leader's new high profile will raise the party's standing, even if many foreign policy decisions are still in fact decided by Pakistan's powerful military.

While the PPP is the third-biggest party in parliament, its support base has retreated towards its Sindh heartland in recent years, Mr Ghani said.

“The party faces a very uphill task in remaining nationally relevant when it comes to elections,” he said.

“Bilawal provides hope of a national vote for the party. It may attract those votes back into the party.”

Updated: April 30, 2022, 12:45 PM
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