'They know me now': Bilawal's bid to woo voters speeds up ahead of Feb 8 polls

Pakistan People´s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari gestures the victory sign during an election campaign rally in Karachi on February 5, 2024, ahead of the country´s upcoming national elections. — AFP
Pakistan People´s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari gestures the victory sign during an election campaign rally in Karachi on February 5, 2024, ahead of the country´s upcoming national elections. — AFP

  • Bilawal's family were once centre-stage in Pakistan's politics.
  • He served as foreign minister in coalition that ousted Imran Khan.
  • Expert doesn't see him as potential candidate for premiership.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) scion Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is making the most of his time in the run-up to the D-Day, February 8 general elections, set to take place on Thursday.

The son of the Muslim world's first woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is all set to contest his second general elections, this time with the aim to clinch the coveted seat of the country's premier, but would it be possible for him to assume it after all, as he continues to wait in the wings for centre stage.

Bilawal's family were once centre-stage in Pakistan's politics, their fortunes rising and falling in a Shakespearean saga of tragedy and power.

Benazir's death in a campaign trail assassination carried the PPP to power under Bilawal's father in a 2008 sympathy vote, but they have since wilted into a third-place concern.

Bilawal, the soft-spoken scion who inherited party leadership as a teen, was long-criticised for lack of experience and paling in comparison to his parents.

But the floppy-haired 35-year-old enters Thursday's election with his first experience of statesmanship, having served as foreign minister in a broad coalition that ousted Imran Khan in 2022.

"They know me now," he told AFP at a rally last week.

'Chosen' since childhood

The millennial candidate professes a Netflix addiction and is less than half the age of his rivals Khan and Nawaz Sharif, who is seen as the kingmaking military's favoured candidate.

Despite the Bhutto pedigree, Bilawal and PPP are on track to play only a minor role in the coming government, but maneuvring for a larger part down the line.

"I could see them as junior coalition partners," political analyst Hafsa Khawaja told AFP. "I don't see him as a potential candidate for the position of prime minister."

Bilawal's grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto forged the PPP in southern Sindh province 50 years ago, with a "bread, clothing, shelter" slogan that propelled it into a populist force.

He ascended to the highest civil office but was deposed by General Zia-al-Haq in a coup and hanged in 1979 despite international outcry.

Benazir, as her son would be decades later, was thrust into the spotlight. Following Zia's death in 1988, she was elected prime minister at the same age Bilawal is today.

"My mother often said that she didn't choose this life, it chose her," Bilawal told AFP at his family home in Karachi in 2017. "The same applies to me."

'Bhutto brand'

However, her government was undercut by military interference and allegations of corruption and despite becoming prime minister twice, she never completed a term.

Ousted in 1996, she spent most of the years of Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship in self-exile, returning in 2007 to contest another election.

But hopes sparked by her return were shattered by her assassination weeks later. Her murder was pinned on militants, with a UN investigation accusing Musharraf of failing to provide sufficient security.

Less than two weeks before polling day on February 8, Bilawal rallied the PPP at the spot where she was killed in the city of Rawalpindi.

Bilawal was named PPP chairman after his mother's death but, still just a student, he returned to Oxford University.

His father Asif Ali Zardari — nicknamed "Mr 10 Per cent" over the many graft claims against him — took control as the party swept the 2008 elections.

But he presided over its decay, fuelled by allegations of corruption and incompetence. Analyst Khawaja said the PPP is now trying to rekindle the "Bhutto brand".

"Even if he doesn't get to be at the position of the prime minister right now, he is still a young man," she said.