Asia

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: Heir to a political dynasty

Bilawal Bhutto speaks to journalists as he campaigns ahead of the 2018 election Image copyright EPA
Image caption Bilawal Bhutto Zardari says he has a progressive vision for Pakistan

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was barely 19 when he inherited a role in a dynasty whose history is steeped in power and bloodshed.

He is the son of former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and murdered ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Three days after his mother's assassination in December 2007, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari took over her position as chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Despite suddenly being catapulted to the top of the political echelon, he initially kept a low profile, focusing instead on finishing his history degree at Oxford University.

But he returned to Pakistan in 2010, and has taken on an increasingly active role as PPP chairman since then.

Now, he is 29 and running for parliament for the first time.

He told the BBC ahead of the 25 July election that he was campaigning to implement his mother's vision of a "peaceful, progressive, prosperous, democratic Pakistan".

Polls currently predict, however, that the PPP will finish in third place, behind the PTI led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, and the outgoing PML-N dominated by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The PPP was badly defeated in elections in 2013, when it just held on to second place.

'One without equal'

Such is the pressure of his family name that Mr Bhutto Zardari will find it difficult to escape comparisons with his mother, father and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Mr Ali Bhutto was Pakistan's first elected prime minister and was executed under martial law in 1979.

The heir to one of South Asia's most famous political dynasties must do more than just follow in his forebears' footsteps.

Mr Bhutto Zardari had just turned 19 when his mother died in a gun and bomb attack during her election campaign in December 2007.

His appointment as party chairman was considered a strategic move to consolidate the party using the Bhutto legacy: the PPP was founded and has always been led by a Bhutto family member.

As Mr Bhutto Zardari made his first public appearance before the world in the wake of the assassination, his father announced that his son would be linked with his mother's famous last name. Bilawal Zardari became Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Bilawal was by his mother's side when she was re-elected in 1993

Born in September 1988, a month before his mother was first elected prime minister, Mr Bhutto Zardari was given a name - Bilawal - meaning "one without equal".

While friends of Benazir Bhutto have said that she always envisaged her son becoming her political heir, they agreed that she would not have wanted him to have to bear that burden so young.

Early life abroad

Mr Bhutto Zardari has spent most of his life outside Pakistan, travelling with his mother - who went into self-imposed exile in 1999 - moving between London and Dubai, and then studying in Oxford. Since 2010 he has spent most of his time in Pakistan.

He does speak Urdu but, like Benazir, his first language is English and his Urdu accent just as Anglicised as that of his mother. However, language never stopped her from reaching a mass audience, and it remains to be seen if it will present a long-term barrier to her son.

Mr Bhutto Zardari is described as a keen sportsman who enjoys cricket, shooting and horse-riding. He also has a black belt in taekwondo.

In joining Oxford's Christ Church college, he followed in the footsteps of both his mother and his grandfather.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bilawal returned to Oxford after his mother was assassinated and he became PPP party chairman

Mr Bhutto Zardari quoted his mother at his first press conference in 2007, saying: "My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."

He did not look entirely at ease as party supporters broke into chants of: "Bilawal, step forward! We are with you!"

But in 2018 he has emerged as a charismatic campaigner in a political atmosphere of acrimony, name-calling and abuse. Our correspondent M Ilyas Khan says he has used clean language, focused on issues and connected well with his audiences.

Many in Pakistan expect Benazir Bhutto's son to continue to carry on his family's legacy. Whether he can restore it to political supremacy remains to be seen.

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