Last week in Pakistan, the son of the country’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, and the former Prime Minister, Benizir Bhutto – who was assassinated for her political beliefs – made his first political speech to his fellow countrymen as the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 24, stepped out to the crowd of people on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s assassination, to present his vision for Pakistan’s political future. The PPP is a party traditionally rooted in socialism, and was in power in Pakistan prior to the country’s second military coup that resulted in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution (Zulfikar was Benazir’s father and Bilawal’s grandfather). After the collapse of the third military coup in Pakistan, the downfall of General Pervez Musharraf, and the ineffective leadership of Bilawal’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan has been increasingly unstable and impoverished, and has also provided safe haven to terrorists, most notably Osama bin Laden. A new generation of leadership in Pakistan has the potential to usher in an era of modernization, compassion, and globalized values, and Bhutto Zardari could be the one for the job.
Nepotism has been the preferred modus operandi for the Bhutto-Zardari family, and Bilawal’s party post indicates that there is no intention to change that practice. Western critics have criticized Bilawal’s rise to PPP leadership as corrupt; the New York Times asserted that his only qualification to hold the position is “that he is the son of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto and grandson of the late prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.” This is certainly the case for the political neophyte, and speaks volumes about the gap in opportunity between those born into political families who are provided top-notch education and the average citizen of country with a drastic wealth (and power) disparity. However, in a country trying to stabilize itself amid the quantity and caliber of challenges that Pakistan is facing, the sense of hope that Pakistanis felt from Benazir’s leadership could well be resumed under Bilawal. His mother took the party reigns at the similarly young age of 29, and was a transformational figure in Pakistan in the 1980′s.
While political power is almost exclusively concentrated among graybeards around the world, the infusion of youth into national leadership brings 21st century values into the task of tackling problems like terrorism, hunger, poverty, and local access to politics. As a millennial with an Oxford education and a political pedigree, Bhutto Zardari has understanding of technology, the power of social media, and the value of working with international partners that will supplement the lasting tenets of the PPP such as social justice, economic equality, and widespread education. He made his breakout speech in sufficient, if not perfect, Urdu- the primary language of most Pakistanis, but not his own mother tongue, which is English. This was not only a symbol of his dedication to appeal to the general population, but also the willingness of leaders and activists of Bhutto Zardari’s generation to speak more than one language- a key diplomatic tool for engaging with the world beyond one’s own borders. Youth movements have become increasingly visible and effective in exacting change across the globe, and activists have made major traction against inequality, political oppression, and corruption in Iran, Russia, Kuwait, and the United States. However to have a member of the millennial generation leading a national party, with the possibility to be elected Prime Minister, is nearly unprecedented.
Beyond the fact that a young leader can bring energy, modernity, and idealism to the spotlight in a country like Pakistan, the substance of Bhutto Zardari’s introductory speech invited Pakistanis to stand by his objectives of eliminating terrorism from Pakistan, returning to a peaceful and secular democracy, and increasing economic aid and educational opportunities for the poor. He invoked Malala Yousafzai, a teenaged girl who was targeted by the Taliban for pursuing education, as a symbol for how Pakistani women, like his own mother, can prosper under a functional democracy free from religious zealotry. He acknowledged that his family legacy is the source of his strength and inspiration, while also exuding a sense of understanding that the challenges in Pakistan cannot be tackled by legacy alone.
Critics and commentators are right when they note Bhutto Zardari’s lack of political experience as a hindrance to his upcoming leadership of the party going into the 2013 elections, which have yet to be announced. And there is no doubt that idealism alone will not carry a country or resolve complicated issues. But perhaps a healthy dose of idealism, youthful spirit, and global values is what Pakistan needs to reverse its pattern of dictatorships, terror, and religious extremism. Only time will tell, but there is great reason to be optimistic for Pakistan’s future.