Making sense of the PPP’s strategy ahead of general elections
ppearing together for a Pakistan Peoples Party Foundation Day event, former president Asif Ali Zardari and former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari seemed to convey a message of unity. For many they convincingly dispelled the rumors about serious rifts in the party. However, the fact remains that the two leaders have two distinct approaches to running the party’s day-to-day affairs. Party members and supporters hope that AAZ’s political wisdom and BBZ’s infectious energy will help the party do well in the next general elections.
As PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto had launched the election campaign from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, despite having received threats of a terrorist attack. Speaking at various conventions in the KP, he had criticised senior politicians, taken issue with their style of politics and urged them to yield more space to younger leaders in their parties. The statements were seen by most people to be aimed against former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan as well as Maulana Fazlur Rahman. However, the argument could equally apply to the elder Zardari.
Soon after Bilawal had spoken at his last convention in KP, Asif Zardari appeared on Geo TV and stated among other things that Bilawal could only learn and improve with time. Some people, including PPP opponents, seized this bit and interpreted it as meaning that Zardari considered his son ‘inexperienced.’ Some even claimed that there were serious differences between the two. Much was made of the fact that Bilawal left for Dubai the day Zardari’s interview was aired. However, Asif Zardari too proceeded to Dubai soon afterwards for a family meet up and both returned to the country and appeared in the Quetta rally together.
Bilawal, who has admirably represented Pakistan as foreign minister, has taken the lead in kick-starting the election campaign. Counting on his own political acumen, he wants to revive the PPP’s street power, which is not possible without the participation of the youth. He also wants to identify with the ideology of his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Much of the PPP’s strength in the Punjab has been lost after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007.
On the one hand, Bilawal wants to inspire the youth, on the other he wants to benefit from the experience and appeal of the disgruntled PPP leaders. This is not possible unless he reaches out to them on a personal level. To achieve his target, he has to go out and be seen on the streets and meet the people. However, his father has advised him otherwise, mainly due to security concerns.
As PPP co-chairman, Asif Zardari has a different approach. He believes in power politics, reconciliation among major political forces and with the country’s powerful establishment. He does not want the party to pursue popular ideologies. Several PPP leaders are said to have advised him to position the party more to the left and closer to the PPP’s ‘original’ orientation. However, he has maintained that the days of politics based solely on ideology are over and that the party must act in pragmatic ways or lose all relevance.
Counting on his own political acumen, Bilawal Bhutto wants to revive the PPP’s street power, which is not possible without the participation of the youth. He also wants to identify with the ideology of his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
People close to Asif Zardari say that the interview should be seen as another effort by a concerned father to protect his son. “Zardari realises that Bilawal is on a precarious path. There was a message in what he said to the powerful quarters that Bilawal was doing all he could for the country despite his relative inexperience and that his campaign should not been misunderstood. At the same time, he reminded Bilawal and other PPP leaders, political parties and powerful quarters that he was calling the shots in the PPP and not Bilawal. Zardari is aware of the repercussions of aggressive politics in Pakistan. He has been a consistent advocate of national reconciliation. He is of the view that the power lies with powerful quarters, no matter how popular a party may be with the masses. The electoral history of Sindh seems to support his thesis. The PPP has ruled Sindh for three consecutive terms since he introduced his policy of reconciliation. By comparison, in 1990, 1997 and 2002, a more popular PPP had lost the elections. The PML-N and the PML-Q had then formed the provincial governments in the PPP’s stronghold,” says a PPP leader.
In the recent past, the father and the son had developed differences on various issues. Once, Zardari decided to award the PPP’s ticket to a business tycoon for Senate, Bilawal opposed the idea and instead recommended Aajiz Dhamra for the ticket. When Zardari persisted, Bilawal left for the UK. In the end, Zardari gave the ticket to Dhamra who is currently serving as a senator. When differences have arisen in the past, sometimes Bilawal and sometimes Zardari appear to have yielded.
Intra-party differences are nothing new to the PPP. In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto developed serious differences with Mumtaz Bhutto, his cousin and a founder member of the PPP. Mumtaz was then removed from the office of Sindh chief minister. Later, he was included in the federal cabinet. When Benazir Bhutto took over the PPP, Mumtaz Bhutto left the party. However, he never achieved the same prominence.
Benazir Bhutto had developed serious differences with her brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto, who had chosen armed resistance and formed the Al-Zulfikar militant group. Benazir had remained committed to resistance through political activities. Murtaza Bhutto later formed his own faction of the PPP. When he returned to the country in 1992, he was arrested. After he was released, he contested several seats for the Sindh Assembly but won only one. After the elections in 1993, Benazir formed the federal and provincial governments. Murtaza Bhutto was unfortunately killed in Karachi and Asif Zardari was accused of plotting his murder. In the end, he was exonerated. Soon after Murtaza Bhutto’s assassination, the then president Farooq Leghari, a former PPP stalwart and close aide to Benazir, sacked the party’s government using his powers under Article 58 (2) b.
Earlier, Benazir Bhutto had developed serious differences with Begum Nusrat Bhutto after she ran a campaign for Murtaza. Benazir had then assumed the party’s chairpersonship. Some PPP stalwarts maintain that it was Begum Bhutto who had asked Benazir to take over on account of the former’s failing health.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher