Running without a Bhutto: Pakistan's ruling party struggles in run up to election

The campaign posters for the Pakistan People's Party show both why it has been so popular for so long and why it's in trouble ahead of this Saturday's national election: two of the party icons on the posters are dead and a third is not old enough to be a candidate.

As the historic vote approaches, one of South Asia's most venerable parties has problems.

The party rode to power in 2008 on a wave of sympathy following the assassination of longtime party leader Benazir Bhutto but now it is struggling after five unpopular years in office. Their campaign was made even more difficult after Taliban threats made it dangerous to hold public political functions, so the party's leader and current star, Bhutto's son, hasn't done rallies to fire up the faithful.

The result has been a subdued campaign for the incumbent party.

"It is very quiet," said Asad Sayeed, from the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research.

The PPP has taken out extensive ads in newspapers and on Pakistan television touting their accomplishments and more importantly reminding voters of the Bhutto family's extensive sacrifices in politics. Party founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed in 1979 after a military coup, and his daughter Benazir died in 2007 from a gun and bomb attack widely blamed on the Taliban.

One television ad starts with a sound bite from the founder of the PPP, then goes to a clip of Benazir Bhutto's last speech before her death and ends with a clip of her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, shouting energetically to an unseen crowd about the sacrifices he's ready to make for his followers. At 24, he can't run for parliament but he's the most famous living Bhutto in a party that's synonymous with the name.

But ads only go so far for the PPP as much of their traditional vote bank is from the rural poor, who don't own a television and can't read even if they could buy a newspaper. That's why analysts say the rallies have always been particularly important to the party's get-out-the-vote drive.

"In the past it's always been a charismatic leader who has been leading those rallies. And that's not there," said Sayeed.

Even with their diminished popularity, many analysts still expect the Pakistan People's Party to at least come in second during Saturday's vote. The Pakistan Muslim League-N, lead by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is expected to win. Under the Pakistani system, a strong second-place showing could mean they'd be an active opposition or get a chance to form the coalition if others fail.

The party has had some successes during its time in office. President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, managed to hold together an unwieldy, fractured coalition government for a full five-year term — making it the first elected civilian government in Pakistan's history to finish its term and hand power to another elected civilian government.

The PPP government also pushed through legislation devolving power to the provinces and restricting the power of the presidency.

But in a country reeling from power cuts that last more than half the day, rising inflation and deteriorating security, those political victories don't put food on people's plates or money in their wallets. The party has to defend a record that many have pilloried, and it's running as an incumbent — not as the underdog it likes to portray itself as.

"I think it's going to be very difficult for them to play this (victim) card this time around," said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

And having Bilawal Bhutto largely sidelined is a blow.

Bilawal — known generally by his first name — was only 19 when his mother died. His father was named by his deceased wife in her will as the leader of the PPP, but the elder Zardari immediately handed that post to his son.

Bilawal was away at college in Britain so in practice his father ran the party for the next five years, but on December 27, the younger Zardari was formally launched into Pakistani politics at a ceremony on the anniversary of his mother's death. The party said he would be taking part in the campaign through rallies or other events such as small gatherings.

But a decision by Bilawal to fly to Dubai in March just as the race was heating up raised eyebrows. The official version of events was that threats to his life forced him to leave the country. That's been a definite possibility. The Taliban is believed responsible for near-daily attacks against political candidates.

But rumors also circulated of a spat with his father. Whatever the reason, Bilawal eventually returned to Pakistan but has played little public role in the campaign.

A PPP candidate in the southern port city of Karachi, Rashid Rabbani, said Bilawal's television advertisements have helped but personal appearances would have been better.

"It would have been a lot better if the party's young chairman ... could have come in the field and addressed election rallies," he said.

Other key party figures such as former prime ministers Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Yousuf Raza Gilani have not stepped up to lead the party at a national level. Ashraf has focused on the tough race he is running for reelection outside of Islamabad and Gilani has focused on helping his sons' election run.

President Zardari is restricted by his office from actively campaigning in the election. But even if he were able to campaign, Zardari is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where many voters view him as corrupt.

Party supporters recognize the challenges.

A PPP member of the outgoing parliament, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, said it will take time for Bilawal to gain the experience to match his mother as a politician. The party also does not want to risk losing him in a terror attack like the one that took his mother. As a result, Ali said, they are going into the crucial election without a central figure to rally around.

Ali also recognized that after five difficult years in office, the party will have to run with the weight of incumbency at a time when many Pakistanis simply want something different.

"Most people that I talk to in Pakistan want change, especially the younger generation," she said.

The party, which draws its strength from the poor, rural areas of southern Sindh province, also failed to recognize the shift from the countryside to the cities that has been taking place in Pakistan, or to capitalize on the huge number of young voters expected to go to the polls, she said.

Still, the party maintains a strong reserve of dependable voters in Sindh, where the Bhutto family's ancestral home is located and where both Benazir and her father are buried.

Many people in rural Sindh are worried that a national government dominated by their more populous northern neighbor, Punjab province, would ignore their needs. The popularity of the government's Benazir Income Support Program, which gives cash to poor people, might also draw voters.

There is also a deep emotional tie between some Pakistanis and a party whose leaders have sacrificed their very lives for their followers.

"People's party has retained its standing among a section of the population which comes from lower classes, and some families no matter what their social status, they are emotionally committed to the Bhuttos," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.


Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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