04/11/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Pakistan's Bhutto Dynasty Reconsidered

Pakistan's fledgling democracy owes much to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in terms of institutional development and civic populism around the right to vote. Despite his feudal lineage and melodramatic demeanor, the founder of the party, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a vociferous proponent of democratic socialism, and rallied his minions around the slogan of "bread, cloth and shelter" (roti, kaparda aur makaan in Urdu). Yet that base of support from the rural poor that Z.A. Bhutto charismatically garnered has been defiled by a dynastic sense of entitlement which gained traction because of his politically motivated execution during the military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. Upon Z.A. Bhutto's death, party leadership was passed on to his elder daughter Benazir Bhutto.

The PPP is currently chaired by the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was tragically assassinated by the Taliban in 2008. The co-chairperson of the party is none other than Benazir's elder son Bilawal Zardari, who has astutely added "Bhutto" as a middle name after his mother's death. At the age of 23, Bilawal has few credentials to claim leadership to the party apart from his family name, and perhaps a good education at Oxford (but that his political contender Imran Khan can boast as well). Regardless, last year he was also named as the Tumandar (Chief) of the Zardari Baloch Tribe -- a rather Orwellian reconnection to tribalism that seems anachronistic for a socially progressive party. Benazir's two daughters Bakhtawar and Aseefa are also being groomed for politics and occasionally tweet about visits to Pakistani villages in brief sojourns from their home bases in Dubai and the United Kingdom. All three siblings may well prove to be able young leaders and should certainly be allowed to prove their worth in politics but through a proper meritocratic process beyond just their surname.

The PPP seems incapable of finding leaders outside the Bhutto clan and claims that this is part of the evolution of democracy in a fractured, hierarchical and nepotistic society. The party has a coterie of highly educated technocrats and loyalists who eloquently present comparisons with other Pakistani political parties that exploit family lineage. They also note the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi clan in the Indian Congress party as a parallel. However, such comparisons are particularly hollow in the context of the PPP's egalitarian roots and their notable achievements in getting some of their poor workers elected to previously feudal-held seats. Surely the PPP wants to hold itself to a higher standard than its opponents. Why must there then be a glass ceiling for leadership in the party that carries disproportionately more power? The party has also created a bizarre cult of sloganeering that perpetuates the dynastic lineage. At PPP rallies, the most resounding slogan is "jiyay Bhutto" (long live Bhutto!), which even the family members themselves often proclaim at the end of their speeches. Such shameless narcissism is not to be found in most other political dynasties of modern times.

Within the Bhutto clan itself there are bitter sibling rivalries across generations. Benazir and her brother Murtaza had a political feud, and his murder during her tenure as Prime Minister in 1996 has haunted Murtaza's daughter Fatima Bhutto -- a vocal critic of the PPP. Fatima Bhutto is herself an intriguing character whom many have claimed as a more natural choice for political leadership in Pakistan. She is a gifted writer, rooted in Karachi, who speaks her mind on issues of social justice, but probably would not be too friendly to U.S. foreign policy priorities. She has a rash and reckless streak, sympathizing too easily with rebellious rhetoric: for example, she has openly praised the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah in her writings and has little patience for diplomatic maneuverings which are essential for political success. However, to her credit, Fatima has vocally expressed her disdain for family-based politics: "Dynasty negates participation, and limits democracy. If you subscribe to [notions of] dynasty, you cannot subscribe to any democratic or participatory philosophy, politically."

As Pakistan's current civilian government under the leadership of the PPP edges towards completion of a historic full five-year term, it is time to shed the dynastic cadence of the party. For all its past follies, the PPP still remains the most viable option for democratic progress and a tempering of militancy in Pakistan. However, its leadership must be based on merit rather than on family lineage. Mr. Zardari and his children claim that the Bhutto family has given many sacrifices for the country and indeed that is true. Let us now ask them to give the ultimate sacrifice in politics -- to resist that urge to lead. Let merit determine who will be the leader of the party and who will hold cabinet positions through a deliberative process. That would surely be the best "democratic revenge" that the late Benazir Bhutto so admirably aspired for and which Pakistan deserves.