300×600
300×600

Bhutto scion Bilawal focuses on Pakistan’s youth, climate change

LARKANA: Youth appeal and ambitious plans to combat climate change form the core of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s effort to become prime minister of Pakistan, which, if successful, would make him its youngest premier since his mother Benazir was in office.

As general elections near on Feb. 8, the 35-year-old, a former foreign minister and scion of a family that gave the nation two prime ministers, called for new ideas and leadership to calm political and economic instability.

“The implications of the decisions taken today are going to be faced by the youth of Pakistan,” Bilawal told Reuters in Larkana, his hometown in the southern province of Sind, a family bastion. “I think it would be better if they were allowed to make those decisions.”

About two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is younger than 30, while its prime ministers since 2000 have been older than 61, on average.

The Oxford-educated Bilawal is less than half the age of three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, 74, whom analysts consider the frontrunner in next month’s election, and former prime minister Imran Khan, 71, who won the last election in 2018.

The eventual winner faces the task of reviving a struggling $350-billion economy.

 Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) chairman and Prime Ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari holds a his party election symbol arrow as he speaks to supporters during a campaign rally for the 2024 general elections in Khairpur in Sindh province. Photo: AFP
Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) chairman and Prime Ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari holds a his party election symbol arrow as he speaks to supporters during a campaign rally for the 2024 general elections in Khairpur in Sindh province. Photo: AFP

The South Asian nation received a $3-billion loan programme from the IMF last year, which gave the economy some breathing space, but analysts believe another bailout would still be needed.

Bilawal plans to tap into widespread anger, saying he has a concrete plan to provide free electricity and boost social safety programmes, despite fiscal constraints.

“What we propose is to completely restructure Pakistan’s development model, putting the threat of climate change front and centre,” he said, in a reflection of his party’s election manifesto.

Making a promise rare in Pakistan, it aims to ensure that funds exceeding $10 billion pledged last year go to fight climate change, after super floods in 2022 that displaced more than 7 million people.

A member of Pakistan’s most powerful political dynasty, Bilawal took out time for an interview during a gruelling four-week campaign that took him to more than 33 towns, while other parties began canvassing just last week.

His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated while on the campaign trial in 2007, and grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hanged by a military dictator in 1979, both still venerated by Pakistanis.

If Bilawal wins the election, subject to the vagaries of government formation, calculations show he could be just 25 days short of his mother’s age on entering office in 1988, at the earliest. “I haven’t actually counted, but … I think she was the youngest,” he responded, when asked how he rated his chances.

Alternative choice

However, his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has lost space to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Sharif and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Khan, who have been locked in a bruising political battle for more than a decade.

Positioning himself as an alternate to them in 2024, he recently called on PTI supporters to vote for him while their leader is in jail.

In the 2013 elections, the PPP came second after Nawaz Sharif’s party, garnering 42 of the 342 seats up for grabs.

In 2018, with 54 seats, it was runner-up to the parties of both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.

Bilawal ruled out joining hands with either contender, however, saying he preferred to form a government with independent candidates. “You know, lots of independent politicians, probably the highest (number) in our history, are taking part in the coming elections,” he added.

Most of the independents belong to Imran Khan’s party, which lost the right this month to contest on a single platform, making the approaching election the most open in recent times.

But one analyst felt the role of prime minister might be a tough goal for Bilawal, saying his party had struggled to build its political strength.

“One might be tempted to look at Bilawal as a dark horse candidate for prime minister,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, as he appeared to be favoured by the military and had been foreign minister.

 Supporters of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) listen to their chairman and Prime Ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari during a campaign rally for the 2024 general elections in Dera Murad Jamali in Balochistan province. Photo: AFP
Supporters of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) listen to their chairman and Prime Ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari during a campaign rally for the 2024 general elections in Dera Murad Jamali in Balochistan province. Photo: AFP

“But I don’t see him as prime minister material just yet,” Kugelman added. “The election will likely lead to a coalition government, and Bilawal could be in the mix for a cabinet-level position, but the top slot is likely too much of a reach.”

Bilawal, asked if he thought the military backed Sharif, responded, “He’s certainly giving the impression that he is relying on something other than the people of Pakistan to become prime minister for the fourth time.”

Questions of transparency will hover over the 2024 elections, just as with earlier ones, he added, but he and his party hoped to win against expectations.

Pushed into the political fray as a teenager in 2007, after his mother’s assassination, Bilawal later inherited her party, but steered clear of politics until he finished his education.

His father, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected president after Benazir’s death.

Bilawal won a parliamentary seat in his first contest in 2018, which was followed by a 16-month stint as foreign minister, until August 2023.