Oxford-educated and single, 29-year-old Bilawal is campaigning himself for the first time, traversing the sprawling plains of Sindh to try to revive the fortunes of his struggling, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) ahead of a July 25 general election.
He was still in university when his mother, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007 as she campaigned to restore democracy after military rule. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister, was hanged after being deposed in a military coup.
“I didn’t choose this life, I didn’t actively go out and pursue it. My mother always used to say that she didn’t choose this life, it chose her. In the same way I feel like it applies to me,” Bilawal told Reuters, as he stood on the roof of his open-top, 20-foot-high bullet-proof bus.
Asked if he is ever afraid while campaigning, he answered briefly: “No”.
He then pivoted to discussing a “climate of fear” in the lead-up to the elections. In one of the first interviews since being named the PPP’s prime ministerial candidate, he also criticised fellow Oxford graduate and opposition leader Imran Khan–a potential coalition partner.
Flanked by supporters on either side of the single-lane highway, Bilawal was showered with rose petals as he waved to thousands of people who waited to catch a glimpse of the youngest of the political dynasty that many call the Pakistani equivalent of the Kennedys.
Despite the feel-good feeling in the crowds, election time is always tense in Pakistan, which has been ruled by the military for almost half of the 70 years since independence. The outgoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government has accused government institutions of playing a role in the ouster of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif last year and helping Imran Khan’s PTI political party. Imran denies the accusation and calls the PML-N a graft-ridden ‘mafia’.
“There is absolutely a feeling that certain candidates are feeling pressurised, are feeling certain political parties are being supported in ways that they shouldn’t be,” he said. “I believe everyone should believe in the people of Pakistan, trust the people of Pakistan to make their own choices.”
Bilawal’s convoy started in Thatta and was later headed north to Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, hoping to revive the vote base it lost in the 2013 polls, when it finished second. A Gallup nationwide poll in March put his party’s popularity at 17 per cent, with Imran’s PTI at 24 per cent and Sharif’s PML-N at 36 per cent.
One of the party’s challenges is overcoming the image of former president Asif Ali Zardari. Some analysts and party insiders say numerous corruption allegations against Zardari could cost the party at the polls, where it will contrast with Imran Khan’s relentless anti-graft message.
Asif Ali Zardari spent 11 years in jail on charges of corruption and murder, but was never convicted. He has always maintained his innocence and remains a party leader and adviser to his son. Although Bilawal is campaigning to become prime minister, many political analysts believe the PPP may at best become a power broker if no party wins a clear majority, as seems likely.
He has indicated he would be willing to join a possible coalition government, although he did not say whether he would prefer the PML-N or Imran’s PTI. He said Imran’s PTI was “peddling the politics of hate, of polarisation, the politics of ‘divisiveness’.
He has been quoted in local media as calling the PML-N “cruel rulers” and saying that it had “decided to eliminate the poor, and not poverty.”
“We have to keep B.B.’s promise. We have to save Pakistan,” he says in Urdu, the national language, using the initials by which his mother was commonly known. “There is no greater sense of fulfilment in a son’s life than to feel like he is continuing with his mother’s incomplete missions,” he said.
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