Pakistan: Bhutto’s Son Flies Solo

Imagine being a 19-year-old who has just been named the leader of the dominant political party in your country of 160 million people, to replace your mother, who less than two weeks ago was assassinated, and on your way back to university in Britain your handlers persuade you to stop in London and give a press conference, if only to stem the deluge of interview requests, and then you face the querulous British press for the first time. The room is packed, with so many photographers the strobe flash is almost continuous, and a tough questioner asks, "Is dynasty really consistent with democracy?" Can the party leadership, conferred on Bilawal Bhutto Zardari by leaders of his mother's Pakistan People's Party, be "handed on like some piece of family furniture?"

Bilawal's response was a classic of evasion. "You know, there's a Pakistani proverb that says, 'How many Bhuttos can you kill? From every house a Bhutto will come'."

The young man was remarkably poised, fielding questions with directness and in digestible sound bites. Either he's a natural or he was well prepped, but either way it bodes well for the choice of Bilawal as the Bhutto family's political heir. After a suicide bomber, possibly working in tandem with one or more gunmen, murdered Benazir Bhutto during a campaign rally on Dec. 27 in Rawalpindi, her Pakistan People's Party met and read what was described as Benazir's handwritten political will and testament. Young Bilawal wasn't mentioned by name, but his mother decreed that his father, Asif Ali Zardari, should take over her role as leader of the party founded by her own father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 on the orders of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. Zardari and the party's leadership wrote Bilawal into the role, with both of them as co-chairmen of the party, and it's expected that the father will be grooming the son for eventual leadership. Neither is standing as the party's candidate for prime minister, and under Pakistan's constitution Bilawal isn't eligible for election until age 25.

This was the first presser at which Bilawal did not appear alongside his father, who previously answered most of the questions for him. Bilawal made a statement pleading for his privacy to be respected once he returns to Oxford University later this week to resume his studies in history, which he began only last term, and he forestalled any embarrassing questions about a Facebook page under his name. "Several duplicate profiles exist now in my name," he said. British papers had reported that a profile under an assumed name was his actual one, and fraudsters have claimed credit for other Facebook pages in his name. Facebook, a social networking site popular with university students—who are famously indiscreet on its pages—reportedly removed at least two purported Bilawal profiles from the site.

Bilawal confirmed reports that his mother's will actually mentioned only his father, but that the party's leaders unanimously wanted him as joint leader. "I was called, and I stepped up to do what I had to do," he said. "Politics is also in my blood, and although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn." He won't be in Pakistan for the elections, which after the assassination were postponed to Feb. 18, but he predicted the Pakistan People's Party would do well. "We've lost our best hope, but we haven't lost our only hope," he said. He bristled when someone questioned the wisdom of having his father lead the party, given his reputation for corruption: "My father spent 11 and a half years in prison despite the fact none of the charges against him were proven."

The press conference was held in the Gore Hotel in central London, amid surprisingly light security. No one entering the packed venue was searched. Bilawal was repeatedly asked if he feared for his safety. "I fear for my privacy," he quipped at one point. "I understand there are risks, but at the same time it has to be done." Spoken like a Bhutto.