Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
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.
This month has seen significant developments in the hope for peace and stability in South Asia. President Zardari traveled to Delhi for one-on-one talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Both sides reported that the meeting went very well, and Prime Minister Singh has accepted an invitation from the Pakistani president to visit Pakistan soon.
The bilateral meeting preceded an unrelated trade fair in New Delhi where Pakistani businesses showed off their products to Indian buyers and investors, and India opening up to foreign investment from Pakistan “to deepen our economic engagement.”
But it isn’t just economic ties that have improved recently. President Zardari’s trip almost didn’t happen after an avalanche buried over 100 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the remote Siachen glacier a few days prior.
The tragedy at Siachen served as a stark reminder of the decades-long military standoff that has dominated security concerns in the region, diverting vast resources to defense budgets in both Pakistan and India. From Delhi, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari Tweeted, “It is such a shame tht 2 countries w/ such large segments of our population live in desperate poverty must spend so much on weapons” – a sentiment soon echoed by Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
“Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people,” he told reporters…“We in the army understand very well that there should be a very good balance between defence and development. You cannot be spending on defence alone and forgetting about development,” he said.
“Ultimately the security of a country is not only that you secure boundaries and borders but it is when people that live in the country feel happy, their needs are being met. Only in that case will a country be truly safe.” He said national security should be a comprehensive concept.
In a further sign of progress, India’s Defense Minister, M.M. Pallam Raju, welcomed Gen. Kayani’s remarks.
With general elections expected in Pakistan next year and the year after in India, either government could change hands. Fortunately, the political environment appears to have changed to such an extent that even President Zardari’s biggest rival, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) President Nawaz Sharif praised Zardari’s visit to Delhi and encouraged further efforts to improve bilateral relations.
Looking back over the past four years of democratic rule, Pakistanis are asking themselves what democracy has delivered. With the economy and internal security situation suffering from the effects of terrorism, it is a complicated question for many. A breakthrough on resolving longstanding differences with India, however, could lay the foundation for a new era of peace and prosperity in the region. That’s a success many long believed unachievable.
Young Pakistanis are making headlines as they increase their involvement in Pakistan’s democratic political process, taking the reins from an older generation of politicians and government officials. Sherhbano Taseer, the 20-something daughter of Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated earlier this year, has received considerable attention for speaking out for justice and tolerance in Pakistan. But Ms. Taseer is not the only young Pakistani who is devoting her life to public service and the cause of strengthening democracy and justice in Pakistan.
First elected to parliament at the age of 25, Hina Rabbani Khar was last week was sworn in as Pakistan’s youngest and first female Minister for Foreign Affairs. Despite her seemingly young age – she is 34 – Hina Rabbani Khar is 13 years older than the median age in Pakistan. She arrived in Delhi today for talks with her Indian counterpart.
In a profession dominated by seasoned diplomats and older political professionals, Hina Rabbani stands out. But Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf suggests that rather than a liability, Hina Khar’s youth is an asset for strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
In strong democracies, young politicians are valued for their stamina, gumption and for their ability to mobilise and motivate other youngsters. It is high time that Pakistan, with its youth bulge, caught on to the trend.
The next young Pakistani to make headlines was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and present Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Yesterday, English-language daily The Express Tribune reported that Bilawal will compete in Pakistan’s 2013 elections, a claim subsequently rejected by Bilawal himself on Twitter. Pakistani political junkies have long speculated about not how, but when Bilawal would enter politics. It appears they had the equation backwards.
According to a report in April, Bilawal is not interested in assuming the mantle of politics as part of a political dynasty.
“Bilawal has specifically expressed interest in the party’s youth wing, which was very dear to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto,” [PPP spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani] said. “He will be looking into modernising the Peoples Youth Organisation, and bringing in new ideas, media technology etc through intellectual and practical exercises.”
Bilawal, who turns 23 this September, is two years away from being eligible to run for a provincial or national assembly seat. However, the PPP believes that the idea is not for Bilawal to jump into politics by contesting elections, but to spend time learning about the party.
“He is a keen learner,” said Ispahani. “He has spent time travelling here and meeting party leaders and members. He listens and he takes his time with making comments on issues.”
At 23, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has spent recent years outside the world of politics, concentrating on completing his studies as Oxford University. Earlier this year, though, he did make a notable public appearance when he gave an unflinching speech in response to the assassination of Salmaan Taseer – at the time a rare show of defiance in the face of terrorist threats, and a demonstration of a courage of conviction largely missing from older political figures.
“To the Christian and other minority communities in Pakistan, we will defend you,” he said at a memorial ceremony in London for Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province who was killed by his own security guard last week.
“Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.”
Of course, how Bilawal’s political career proceeds – if he even chooses to have one – remains to be seen. But cynicism aside, Bilawal deserves credit for approaching politics from the path of a public servant, and not a dynastic heir.
Americans can appreciate the desire of young adults to serve their country. First elected to Congress when he was only 29 years old, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States at 43 – less than 10 years older than Hina Khar. Current Vice President Joe Biden was first elected to the US Senate at 29 – he had to wait until his 30th birthday to take the oath of office. When Barack Obama entered the White House, he brought not only a youthful spirit, but a group of public servants the New York Times dubbed, “the Obama 20-Somethings.”
However the political careers of Hina Rabbani Khar, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and other young Pakistanis pan out, it is encouraging to see young people in Pakistan taking up the work of strengthening democracy and justice in their country. The next chapter in Pakistan’s history will be written by their youth. They deserve our support.