Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and current President Asif Zardari, was elected Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – the nation’s largest political party – following his mother’s assassination in 2007. He was a 19 year old Oxford student thrust into the center of politics during a volatile time in Pakistan’s history. Despite his young age, however, Bilawal has emerged as an outspoken voice for democracy and progressive values in Pakistan. He has consistently spoken out against terrorism, being one of the few to openly and strongly condemn the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, and reiterating his determination to defeat the extremist mindset he holds responsible for the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old education activist.
Despite these principled stands, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been criticized for his precocious rise in politics by those who see him as the beneficiary of a political dynasty. The PPP was founded by his grandfather who served as its Chairman until his death at the hands of a military tribunal in 1979. Bilawal’s mother, Benazir Bhutto, took over as Chair of the party in 1982 – a position she held until her assassination in 2007. Bilawal was elected to the position in the aftermath of his mother’s death in what many believe was an attempt to provide a sense of continuity and prevent a fracturing of the party after losing its charismatic leader.
In an interview for Charlie Rose, the young PPP Chairman addressed the issue of politics and political dynasties in Pakistan directly.
As much as political dynasties are not ideal, and Bilawal admits as much in the interview, it is important to consider them in context. Bilawal was not a dauphin inheriting a throne, but a symbol of continuity and hope in a time of chaos and fear. We should also remember that political dynasties are not inherently undemocratic. Here in the United States, our history is filled with political dynasties, many of which produced great leaders. From the founding of the United States, when a teenage John Quincy Adams first accompanied his father to Paris, to the Kennedys and, most recently, the Bushes, our own democracy has seen dynasties come and go without the introduction of a hereditary aristocracy in any real sense. This is due in large part to the fact that, despite the influence some families obtain, the democratic process requires the consent of the voters who judge individual candidates on their merits, not their pedigrees. If a leader does not represent the people who elected him, he will be replaced in the next elections.
No politician should be granted special consideration because of his or her last name. But neither should they be summarily dismissed. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is coming of age politically alongside Pakistan’s democracy. He should be judged on the merit of his leadership, not the peculiar historical events which led to his rise. So far, the people who elected him don’t seem to have any regrets.