[Editor’s note: The Facebook profile cited in many articles — including this one — has been revealed as a hoax, according to a statement from Farahnaz Ispahani of the Pakistan Peoples Party. “The statement that’s on [the Facebook profile] is not his statement,” he told The New York Times. “It seems genuine but according to Mr. Zardari, and we checked with him, the Facebook statement has not been written by Bilawal.” MTV News regrets the error.]
Some people choose to go into politics. Others are propelled into the fray by destiny, a sense of familial duty or necessity.
In the case of 19-year-old Oxford University history student Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the decision to take over the reins of the Pakistan People’s Party was motivated by a combination of all of the above, spurred by the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto , on Thursday and the resulting chaos that has threatened Pakistan’s ability to embrace democratic rule.
The eldest of Bhutto’s three teen children — who also include daughters 17-year-old Bakhtawar (who has expressed a desire to front a punk band) and 14-year-old Asifa — has pledged to finish the last three years of his studies while his father, Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, takes over as co-chair of the party and day-to-day chairman in the meantime. At a news conference announcing his ascendancy to the party chairmanship on Sunday, Bilawal vowed to continue his mother’s struggle for democracy, saying, “My mother always said, ’Democracy is the best revenge.’ ”
Though the PPP had hoped to keep the crucial parliamentary elections on track to take place January 8, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has announced that they will be delayed until February 18, in the wake of the rioting and violence that took place after Bhutto’s murder, which resulted in 47 deaths and the destruction of polling locations and voter lists.
Bilawal has been described in press accounts as a shy, studious sports fan who loves swimming and playing cricket, squash and polo; has a black belt in tae kwon do; and has inherited his mother’s strong speaking skills. Following his studies at Oxford — which is also the alma mater of his mother and grandfather — he is considered to be the likely heir to the Bhutto political throne over his father, whose past is tainted by a prison sentence for murder and corruption allegations that twice forced Benazir Bhutto from the prime minister’s seat in Pakistan.
In a message posted on his Facebook page following the announcement, Bilawal portrayed himself as a student who likes eating junk food and watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but who is eager to take up the challenge of his birthright.
“This is a time of global mourning, and I feel honoured that my mother’s memory and message is cherished so dearly by such an incomprehensible number of people,” Bilawal wrote. “Let us not forget all those others who have died alongside her, protecting her and supporting her and remaining with her, despite the danger they knew they were in. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. … And so, people have questioned why I want to partake in a future that will put my life, and the lives of those around me, in constant and critical danger. … People have questioned why a person of only nineteen years of age feels he has the ability to be able to achieve greatness for a nation in turmoil. People have questioned why I talk about the virtue of democracy whilst coming into power through such undemocratic means. I can say this much in response: These are the right questions to be asking. These questions are what the foundations of democracy and a free society are built on. The important thing is not to stop questioning.
“I am not a born leader,” admitted Bilawal, who made his news-conference announcement in English (with an accent described as more English-sounding than Pakistani) instead of in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, of which he is thought to speak very little. “I am not a politician or a great thinker. I’m merely a student. I do the things that students do, like make mistakes, eat junk food, watch ’Buffy,’ but most importantly of all … learn. My time to lead will come, but for now I’m the one asking questions, not the one answering them.”
His ascendancy would make Bilawal the latest member of the Bhutto clan to seek higher office in Pakistan, stepping into a history that includes the hanging of his mother’s father, Pakistan People’s Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1979, as well as the mysterious deaths of the former prime minister’s two brothers. It’s a job he seems to have been born into — Benazir Bhutto gave birth to Bilawal during her first campaign for prime minister in 1988. According to a story in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Bilawal’s uncle, Ali Jafri, said that just as Benazir Bhutto was groomed by her father to take over the family business, Bilawal was given a first-row seat to world politics as a child.
While Zardari served his prison sentence in Pakistan for eight years, Bilawal and his sisters lived with their mother in exile in Dubai beginning in 1999. Bilawal attended prestigious schools, where he earned top grades, according to the Mail. He has now adopted the Bhutto surname as his middle name — a change reflected in his Facebook account — as an acknowledgment of the power the family name has in Pakistani politics.
“He was learning everything from [Ms. Bhutto] about politics and about Pakistan,” said Jafri. “He was a very, very shy boy. But with tons of effort, we’ve groomed him very well.”
Relatives describe him as intensely private, rarely socializing outside his family circle and often overshadowed by his more extroverted younger sisters during family gatherings. He recently became a member of Oxford’s famed debating society, the Oxford Union, the Mail reported, an organization once led by his mother. The club’s recent president said the forum appeared to have helped Bilawal come out of his shell.
Due to his newly prominent role, Oxford is assessing the best way to provide Bilawal with security, which could include armed secret-service protection from the Thames Valley Police, according to London’s Daily Telegraph.