After Bhutto: Who Will Lead the Pakistan People’s Party?

The murder of Benazir Bhutto has created a leadership vacuum within the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The populist, center-left party gained patrimonial colors after the execution of its founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979.

Party leadership passed on to his wife, Nusrat. However, their daughter, Benazir, would soon rise to center stage, eclipsing–quite aggressively–her mother and brothers. Benazir was effectively at the party’s helm for the past two and a half decades, becoming at some point its chairperson for life. The party has no internal elections and Bhutto’s competitors were shut out.

Filling her shoes will be no easy task. Not only did Bhutto wield an almost absolute command over the People’s Party, but her persona–very much tied to her father’s–made many willing, if not desiring, to accept her complete stewardship.

To top it off, Bhutto has been lionized since her passing. News anchors on Pakistan’s private channels now refer to her as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto; she is now a martyr. Within hours of her passing, the news channels ceased to use the word ‘death’ and instead term her passing as shahadat, or martyrdom.

No potential successor shares the unique set of characteristics as Bhutto: the ‘royal’ name; popular appeal in Pakistan; political instinct; and deep contacts and friendships with leaders and influencers in the West. Most likely, Bhutto’s void will be filled by multiple individuals. The probable candidates are listed below in order of importance.


Amin Fahim
As the vice chairman of the PPP, Amin Fahim is best positioned to assume leadership of the party. Fahim led the party in the National Assembly and was its presidential candidate in the faux polls held in October.

He is a feudal figure from Bhutto’s home province and political base of Sindh. Fahim has considerable name recognition nationally, but does not have the Bhutto name and the star power associated with it. His international connections are not strong, so he lacks Bhutto’s capacity to leverage an extensive network of foreign friends and supporters in order to challenge the U.S.-backed Musharraf.


Asif Zardari
Most eyes are naturally focusing on Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower and closest adult relative with a political background. But Zardari is not a Bhutto; he did not marry “into” the family. His influence comes from two sources: one, like Bhutto and Fahim, he comes from an influential Sindhi feudal family; two, he was married to the daughter of Pakistan’s most popular politician post-Jinnah.

But Zardari is not viewed as the inheritor of the Bhutto mantle. And so it is highly likely that his political status will recede with the murder of his wife.

Zardari is a stained political figure. The PPP has, in recent years, sought to distance itself from him, who garnered the moniker “Mr. 10 Percent” as a result of his prolific corruption.

At best, he will play the role of a figurehead in a post-Bhutto PPP. Not only is Zardari hampered by negative perceptions and the lack of a claim to the Bhutto name, he is also in poor physical health. And it’s also unclear as to whether he is emotionally prepared to play politics; Zardari has been extremely distraught in multiple appearances on national television since yesterday. He also has three teenage children to raise.


Aitzaz Ahsan
As a leading figure in the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan’s popularity–particularly with the middle and upper-middle class–has risen considerably this year. As a result, his relations with Benazir Bhutto cooled considerably; she was not happy, to say the least, with his commitment to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the judiciary’s cause.

Ahsan withdrew his nomination papers from the January elections; it’s unclear as to whether he had Bhutto’s endorsement, though it’s likely it was done against her will. His commitment to the judicial cause, while earning Bhutto’s anger, also gained points with the Pakistani public. Ahsan is seen as one of the few viable politicians who refused to consent to Musharraf’s subversion of the constitution. And so he can serve as a vehicle for restoring the public trust in the People’s Party as a popular, democratic front.

Unlike Bhutto, Ahsan is Punjabi, not Sindhi and so it’s difficult to see him alone holding up Bhutto’s popular base in Sindh. He could, to some extent, help propel the People’s Party in Punjab, but that would put the party on a more agitational course with not only the PML-Q, but also the PML-N — and it’s unclear as to whether the party wants to tussle with the latter.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
As Benazir Bhutto’s eldest child, Bilawal’s entry into politics would precede that of his younger sisters (aged 16 and 14 respectively), if he choses to enter this dangerous field. But he’s only 19 and barely speaks Urdu. Bilawal just began his studies at Oxford, after living in Dubai for eight years–almost half his life. While Benazir spent her adolescence and early adulthood as her father’s political apprentice–even accompanying him to the Simla negotiations with Indira Gandhi–Bilawal has had no similar training. Bilawal’s political career will begin, if ever, gradually and in a highly managed fashion


Farhatullah Babar
A long-time Bhutto loyalist and spokesperson, Babar will continue in his media relations capacity and providing counsel to the remainder of the party’s senior brass. He did not register for the January national and provincial elections and resigned from the Senate in 2006. If he returns to electoral politics, it’s more likely he’ll re-enter that body.


Shah Mehmood Qureshi
As head of the PPP in Punjab, Qureshi will continue to shape the party’s operations in the country’s largest province. A feudal and Cambridge graduate, he frequently comes on political talk shows on behalf of the party. Qureshi could increasingly become a power broker at the national level.


Sherry Rehman
A graduate of Smith College, Sherry Rehman came from a similar cultural and ideological background as Benazir Bhutto. While she can help continue the party’s media campaign in both Pakistan and the West, odds are she will do little more.


Fatima Bhutto
A 25-year old Columbia graduate and daughter of Benazir’s slain brother, Fatima is perhaps the ultimate wild card in the post-Benazir PPP. Relations between she and her aunt were immensely hostile. Fatima accused Benazir of being behind the assassination of her father, Murtaza Bhutto–one of Benazir’s younger brothers. Fatima has been an active columnist and civil society advocate in Karachi. She has the name, the brain, and the brawns to play politics. In a potential step toward rapproachment with other Bhuttos and the Zardaris, she and her Lebanese stepmother, Ghinwa Bhutto–who runs her own PPP faction–attended Benazir’s funeral. That’s, however, a long way from mending ties with her late aunt’s inner circle. Though Fatima has been reluctant to assume any status seen as hereditary, she could come to see some utility in national politics. Will she and her stepmother rejoin Benazir’s PPP, or will they continue to remain separate, and even push for defections toward their camp? It’s all very much in the air.


Other Influentials: Raza Gilani; Jehangir Bader; Raza Rabbani; Babar Awan; Qaim Ali Shah; Enver Baig

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Category: Aitzaz Ahsan, Amin Fahim, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's Assassination, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Farhatullah Babar, Fatima Bhutto, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Sherry Rehman


16 Responses

  1. Jags says:

    Comprehensive analysis here! I think emotional, grieving PPP supporters will probably require somebody with at least some level of populist appeal to fill Benazir’s big shoes. I personally would like Aitzaz Ahsan to take up the position. I think he has the deep ideological commitment to democracy and rule of law and spent his life struggling for it, which could restore the Pakistani public’s trust in PPP…something Zardari definitely wouldnt be able to.

  2. rezco says:

    Does military regime will lead Pakistan again?

    -Indonesian Blogger-

  3. zakir says:

    i think the butto family must finished their enimities and i see only person who have the ability to lead paksitan ppp thatis fatima butto

  4. Hamid Baloch says:

    I would think someone like Aitazaz will be a great leader for this party in the interim. He should groom Famtima Bhutto for the future leadership. She has the right mix of Bhutto name and intelegence for the job. PPP supprters will love her as she resembles her aunt.

  5. [...] More in depth analysis from The Pakistan Policy Blog, Dave @ The Galloping Beaver and Cernig @ The Newshoggers.  Oh, and make sure to check out my [...]

  6. Wilf Day says:

    I will make a small prediction as to Benazirs Bhutto’s “political testament:” she will propose that, until Bilawal is ready, the triumvirate be Amin Fahim, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Sherry Rehman.

  7. [...] Rafiq of Pakistan Policy Blog compiled a list on Friday of potential successors to Benazir Bhutto; at this point, your guess is as good as mine. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social [...]

  8. FATIMA AND BILAWAL should lead the PPP. In 1967, the ppp was founded by talented people from all walks of life but fortunatly or unfortunatly headed by a feudal Z.A. Bhutto who was master of selling dreams to poor and oppressed people of the country. Poor and lowwer middle class played a role of worker for the party and organised it all over the country to grass root level. Later on all situation changed in 1977 when oppresser of the society, deudals were given way in the party and workers were ignored. Later on Z.A.Bhutto had paid a big price of his love for poors and was hanged by a general on instruction from other super powers. His young daughter replaced her gradually because of her talents of selling dreams like his father. She could not do any thing for oppressed people due to control democracy but his colleagues made hell of money and influence while in power. After military take over 1n 1999, she left for abroad and had learned lot of realities of the life and was anxious to do some thing for oppressed class of the country. But bad luck to poor people , she was assasinated mysteriously and lost her life. Now democratically PPP should have elected it’s leader and Iatazaz Ahsan, Shah Mehmud Qureshi, Yusaf Raza Gilani amd Makhdoum Amin Fahim could be ver promising candidate to compete but there is no democracy no where in Pakistan so nomination brought Bilawal but it would have been much better to bring an other Bhutto, Fatima in the fold to keep workers and oppressed people unite. This could have been by Asif Zardari showing his greatness to nominate these two young Bhuttos in waiting list of leadership but unfortunatly Zardari did what a loving father should do- so nothing do discuss, let him deal with leadership of PPP and workers will be chanting jive jive bhutto jive. KHWAJA AFTAB ALI, Advocate & IP Attorney, unknown founder worker, presently residing in Orlando, Florida, USA.piplaw@hotmail.com

  9. shabib rizvi says:

    every thing above all is correct.but what about the benazir butto’s will?.what about her recommendation of asif zardari’s name?.if she think that zardari will be the next party leader then why every one is making his own opinion.

  10. Muhammad Panah Bhutto says:

    mein samjta hoon PPP ke qadat Fatima Bhutto Ko sonpe gae qune k Benazir jase ability srif Fatima k pass ha aur right b asi ka ha Bilwal mein wo ability nahi ha jo ability Fatima Bhutto mein han Bilwal Zardari ha Bhutto nahi hai awam Bilwal ko accept nahi karee ge awam PPP ke qadqt Fatima Bhutto K pass dakna chahta ha

  11. Arif Rafiq says:

    I wrote this months ago, but I’m glad you commented on it. The issues of PPP leadership could return to significance soon.

    There are some years of difference between Fatima and Bilawal. I agree with you, Fatima, at this point, is much more prepared and has great ability. Bilawal, at this point, does not appear to possess the strong personality of his mother, grandfather, uncles, and cousin. This could change — or remain the same.

    Fatima’s best bet is to continue not to actively seek leadership of the PPP. If she does, she will be painted as someone seeking to rip the PPP apart. She will be painted as a tool of the establishment. If she is interested in leading the PPP and is patient, the mistakes of its current leader[ship] will create an opportunity for her.

  12. Syed Wahab says:

    I think the will of benazir was totally wrong.In fact it was made by the betrayal of Benazir & PPPP.

    According to Naheed Khan(who was the closest person of benazir bhutto)Benazir never declare in her life that she want Asif Zardari in PPP or Politics.

    Well as a supporter of PPP i would like to say that the workers & the other supporters of PPP will not accept FATIMA BHUTOO in PPP,because she is a person who said that BENAZIR was involved in her father’s murders & that we all know it was done by the establishment.

    To me there is only one person who have all rights to lead the party and that is MAKHDOOM AMEEN FAHIM.

    One thing I must say here:

    Y Zardari elect Raza Ghillnai as PM,& elect him self as President intend of Makhdoom Amin FAheem who’s the President of PPP.
    because Zardari had deal with west that he will not restore judges because if he restore the judges,they will kick Former President Musharaff in to hell.

  13. kifayat says:

    Fatima Butto is rising star for youngs n new Pakistan,

  14. wamik naheed boby says:

    if i ever had a bomb, rocket launcher or numberl of ak 47 i will stand up the whole government in front of me and blust them that’s why every young muslim of pakistan will do (insha ALLAH) i will do it, first the bullshit bleady hell fucking zardari then rest of his fellows dont think that i could not do any thing when my time come every one will see it and the flag of PAKISTAN will be in the hand of TRUE MUSLIM

  15. wamik naheed boby says:

    fucking zardari is the murder of benazir he want his insurance money and also preisendtional seat
    if any body give him money than he could fuck every one even his own family and two dau…….
    know you

  16. Barrister Asad Ali Bhutto says:

    Mein Samjta Hoon PPP Ke Qiadat Bakhtawar Bhutto Ko Sopne Gae Kune k Benazir jase ability srif Bakhtawar Bhutto k pass hy. Awam Fatima Bhutto ko accept nahi karty & Fatima Bhutto Ne BB K Against Bahut Zehr Ugla Hy. Awam PPP ke Qiadqt Bakhtawar Bhutto K pass dakna chahta hy

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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