The famous American writer and scholar Gore Vidal analyzed the American political system and setup and wrote that “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party…and it has two right wings.” Vidal was referring to the Republicans and the Democrats, whom he characterized as representatives of the ruling class, who have obvious cursory differences but are fundamentally there to preserve the exploitative capitalist system and imperialist hegemony.
When Benazir Bhutto was pushed into the limelight after her father’s death, many people derided her as too young to handle the complexities of Pakistani politics or resist the brute force of military dictatorship. She proved them wrong, first leading alongside her mother in the 1983 Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and then assuming the mantle of prime minister, though her two terms were marked by political wrangling and her governments’ dismissals. Despite living in exile for nearly a decade following the 1999 military coup, Benazir remained committed to Pakistan and she returned in 2007 having learnt from her experience in exile. At the time many people thought the PPP was a dead party, but defying expectations she was welcomed by thousands of adoring supporters, 139 of whom were killed in an attempt on her life by a suicide bomber in Karsaaz, Karachi, where on Saturday — the seventh anniversary of the attack — her son Bilawal Bhutto led a massive rally organised by the PPP to launch his political career. It was a strong showing by a party that has suffered innumerable setbacks over the last decade, not least from its own mismanagement and political short-sightedness. Benazir was a national leader of conspicuous standing not only in Pakistan but the world, with the ability to energise her party’s ranks and gather disparate elements to her cause. That enthusiasm among the rank and file of PPP workers and supporters was missing at Bilawal’s rally, but the mass attendance showed that despite its failures and troubles, the party still has the machinery and support to mobilise people when it needs to.
Bilawal’s 90-minute speech began and ended with a call for people to again embrace ‘Bhuttoism’, the political philosophy of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that transformed the country’s politics by energising and mobilising the peasantry and working classes. In Benazir’s words, Bhuttoism meant “expenditures for health and education, labour laws that protect workers, and no corruption, nepotism or drug smuggling”. In the 1960s and 1970s Bhuttoism was a socialist philosophy focused on welfare, but after the 1980s return to democratic government, the PPP embraced the ideals of the neo-liberal economic paradigm. Its last five years in power were marked with accusations of massive corruption and incompetence and many of its social programmes remained confined to paper. The party’s leaders are wealthy feudals and businessmen and nepotism have become synonymous with its name. For many people today this is Bhuttoism’s mixed legacy and Bilawal failed to clarify whether he meant a return to the socialist Bhuttoism of his grandfather or whether he would redefine it himself. Indeed the main point of clarity in his speech was condemnation of religious and sectarian terrorism, a secular vision that currently sets the PPP apart. That alone will not be enough to overcome the shadows of the PPP’s past. While the party showed it can bring people to rallies this does not necessarily translate into electoral support. In order to win elections the party must prove that it can perform, deliver and impress the youth and a rising professional and middle class that are increasingly immune to political slogans and dynasties. Bilawal spoke extensively about his party’s development programme in Sindh. Which projects and what they have achieved needs to be shown, otherwise their words remain empty. Bilawal Bhutto is young but he and his party must realise that they can no longer rely on slogans and his family name. In order to remain a force in national politics, the PPP must invigorate its workers with a clear ideological direction, prove its claims with facts on the ground and reform its cadres to represent more of Pakistan’s young and competent professional class. As per the PPP track record, Bilawal too attempted hard to cash in on the sacrifices rendered by its top leaders for the cause of democracy and Bhuttoism. But it was clear that performance and governance found a visible place in his mind that would matter in the next elections.