Bilawal, Zardari, Fahim to lead PPP; Will Contest Jan. 8 Polls

The Pakistan People’s Party movers and shakers have annointed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 19, the son of slain Benazir Bhutto, as its next leader. He will continue his studies at Oxford while his father, Asif Zardari, acts as regent. The PPP will run Makhdum Amin Fahim as its candidate for prime minister, and will contest the January 8 elections (apparently they are counting on a sympathy vote, and may also be afraid the country will slip into martial law if the civil disturbances continue). The other major party with grass roots, the Muslim League-N, led by Nawaz Sharif, had said it would boycott the elections. But Sharif said Saturday he would reconsider the boycott if the PPP decided to go ahead.

Fahim is what is called in Pakistan a “feudal landlord,” with a BA in political science from the provincial Sindh University. He has been parliamentary leader of the PPP in recent years. The Pakistan People’s Party was created in the late 1960s by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and has all along been led by that family and its retainers. “Makhdum,” Fahim’s ancestral title, means “served” and is a term applied in South Asia to a Sufi leader. Great medieval Sufis were given lands to support them by Muslim rulers like the Mughals, so that in many instances their descendants are big landowners, and the family’s spiritual vocation has disappeared. Fahim is a secular politician, and like a lot of the Pakistani elite, likes a good stiff drink of bourbon.

The PPP during the past two decades has been internally split between a rising middle class urban leadership and the old landowning families. An alternative to Fahim would have been the smart Punjabi lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, who was jailed for protesting the dismissal of the justices, and is admired by a lot of the urban activists. Despite Benazir’s own education abroad, her instincts (and now those of her widower) was always to “run the feudals,” and to depend on the landlords’ ability to get out the vote among their own (largely illiterate and repressed) peasants.

The PPP leadership had a chance to become the party of the future and to galvanize the new middle class, which has spearheaded the challenge to Musharraf over his gutting of the judiciary. It has instead run the feudals again. Fahim seems to me unlikely to generate the sort of excitement that Aitzaz Ahsan would have. But then, the PPP will probably get a big sympathy vote. Once in power, however, unless it pursues policies that benefit urban classes, it will find itself eclipsed.

Barnett Rubin’s WSJ op-ed on Bhutto’s assassination is now available in full at our group Global Affairs blog.