ISLAMABAD — Reelection prospects for Pakistan’s outgoing ruling party are looking even tougher after indications emerged this week that one of its star vote-getters — the young son of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated prime minister — will play a less prominent role in the campaign because of security concerns and political infighting.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, widely referred to by his first name to distinguish him from the rest of the family, is the only male heir to the political dynasty started by his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as president and prime minister but was overthrown in a coup and executed in 1979. The father’s legacy was continued by his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, until her death in a gun and bomb attack in 2007.
The party the eldest Bhutto founded, the Pakistan People’s Party, portrays itself as a champion of the rural poor. The slain father and daughter are considered by their followers to be martyrs, and the Bhutto name inspires strong loyalty, especially in the family’s ancestral province of Sindh. Bilawal’s father and Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is the current president.
The party’s performance leading the ruling coalition over the last five years is less fondly remembered, and the party faces a tough battle in the May 11 parliamentary election. The country is grappling with a weak economy, pervasive energy shortages, and a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
Bilawal, 24, is too young to run in the election, but he was expected to play a key role in rallying voters.
But three party officials close to Bilawal said that he recently left for Dubai because of security concerns — the Pakistani Taliban is suspected of killing his mother — and would not make many public appearances at rallies, instead speaking by video link. The first such rally would be on April 4 in Sindh, unofficially marking the beginning of the party’s campaign, they said.
Two other party officials said that Bilawal, who serves as party chairman, pulled back from the campaign because of political differences with his father’s sister, Faryal Talpur, who also plays a key role in the party.
The party officials all spoke on condition of anonymity late Tuesday because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Pakistan’s Lahore University of Management Sciences, said it is possible Bilawal decided to reduce his profile because the party is predicted to be beaten by the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
That would allow him to save his full entry into the political scene until the next election in five years, when the Pakistan People’s Party might have a better chance of winning.