ISLAMABAD — The re-election prospects for Pakistan's outgoing ruling party are looking even tougher after indications emerged this week that one of its star vote-getters – the young son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – will play a less prominent role in the campaign because of security concerns and political infighting.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – widely referred to by his first name to distinguish him from the rest of the family – is the only male heir to the political dynasty started by his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as president and prime minister but was overthrown in a coup and executed in 1979. The father's legacy was continued by his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, until her death in a gun and bomb attack in 2007.
The party the eldest Bhutto founded, the Pakistan People's Party, portrays itself as a champion of the rural poor. The slain father and daughter are considered by their followers to be martyrs, and the Bhutto name still inspires strong loyalty, especially in the family's ancestral province of Sindh. Bilawal's father and Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is the current president.
The party's performance leading the ruling coalition over the last five years is less fondly remembered, and the PPP faces a tough battle in the May 11 parliamentary election. The country is grappling with a weak economy, pervasive energy shortages and a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
Bilawal, 24, is too young to run in the election, but he was expected to play a key role in rallying voters.
But three party officials close to Bilawal told The Associated Press that he recently left for Dubai because of security concerns – the Pakistani Taliban is suspected of killing his mother – and would not make many public appearances at rallies, instead addressing crowds by video link. The first such rally would be on April 4 in Sindh, unofficially marking the beginning of the party's campaign, they said.
Two other party officials told the AP that Bilawal, who serves as PPP chairman, pulled back from the campaign because of political differences with his father's sister, Faryal Talpur, who also plays a key role in the party. The party officials all spoke on condition of anonymity late Tuesday because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences, said it's possible Bilawal decided to reduce his profile because the PPP is predicted to be beaten by the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N. That would allow him to save his full entry into the political scene until the next election in five years, when the PPP might have a better chance of winning.
The president's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, denied the reports of infighting among the family members Wednesday and said the political heir's trip outside the country was routine. He said he did not know whether Bilawal would attend the rally on April 4, which marks the anniversary of the death of his grandfather, or address the crowd remotely.
"We don't share travel plans of our party leadership because of security reasons," Babar told the AP. "Surely, he will be participating in the election campaign. When and where, it is a matter of details, and we cannot share it at this point of time."
Bilawal's sister, Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari, tweeted, "Bilawal WILL be part of the election campaign but will not be leading it."
Bilawal's grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan People's Party in the 1960s and served as both the country's president and prime minister in the 1970s. He was eventually hanged in 1979 after Gen. Zia ul-Haq seized power in a military coup.
Benazir Bhutto twice served as prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s but never completed a full term. Her governments were dismissed both times under the cloud of corruption allegations by presidents who were close to the country's powerful army. She was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack on Dec. 27, 2007, shortly after returning from self-imposed exile to participate in national elections.
After her death, the Pakistan People's Party rode a wave of public sympathy to garner the most seats in the 2008 elections, and Asif Ali Zardari was elected president. But the popularity of both the party and the president has fallen significantly since then.
Biawal was made chairman of the Pakistan People's Party after his mother's death but mainly played a background role until recently while he completed his studies at Oxford University in Britain. He delivered a speech in Sindh at the end of December that analysts said marked the beginning of his political career.
Even if he does play a major role in the campaign, it remains to be seen how well he can rally the party's largely poor, rural constituency in Sindh since he has lived most of his life outside the country and is still working on his command of Urdu, the national language.
"I think the way the PPP's strategy was evolving, Bilawal was the trump card," said Rais. "The tough challenge that the People's Party faces will get much tougher in the absence of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari."
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report.