Bhutto's Party Faces Power Struggle as It Seeks Next Leader

Before Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party continues its power struggle with President Pervez Musharraf, it likely will face an internal power struggle over who will succeed her.

That process begins today, when its executive committee meets to name an interim chairman. Speculation in the Pakistani press has included Bhutto's sister and widower.

The PPP, a leading voice for the restoration of democracy since Musharraf's 1990 military coup, has no obvious successor because it has always been an autocratic institution. Since its founding as a populist movement 40 years ago, the PPP has been led only by Bhutto, her mother or her father, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Months before her Dec. 27 assassination, Bhutto, 54, assumed the party title of ``life chairperson.'' Her teenaged children are too young to assume her mantle.

Pakistani parties, including the PPP, ``are not internally democratic and do not transmit the democratic aspirations of Pakistanis,'' said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The autocracy of the mainstream parties, including Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, has cost them popular support, at times allowing others to fill the void by leading the fight against Musharraf. After the president sparked a crisis by trying to oust the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury, lawyer-led street protests and aggressive coverage by independent television stations forced Musharraf to back down, at least temporarily.

``Our political parties have lagged far behind popular expectations'' by failing to aggressively promote democracy, commentator Ghazi Salahuddin wrote Dec. 2 in The News, an English-language newspaper.

Bhutto made little effort to groom an heir apparent. In an interview in August, she depicted herself as not only her party's sole leader but as the country's only hope.

``I would be content to see Pakistan have democracy,'' she said in an Aug. 6 Bloomberg Television interview in New York. ``But at the same time, my party feels that I'm the leader who can give hope to the people of the country. And wherever I go, people always tell me, `Don't give up. We stood by you. And you must stand by us.''

Among her possible successors are Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower; Makhdoom Amin Fahim; her deputy in the PPP hierarchy, Aitzaz Ahsan; her long-time attorney, and her sister, Sanam. The U.S. signaled its focus on potential successors in the hours after the assassination, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called both Zardari and Fahim.

All four come with downsides. Sanam has lived her adult life in London and has no political experience. Zardari has faced a battery of corruption charges -- most eventually dismissed -- in Pakistan and abroad, including in Switzerland. Fahim is longtime legislator and a former Bhutto cabinet minister but lacks a public persona and the cachet of the Bhutto name.

Though Ahsan, 63, also lacks that name, he has significant advantages. He was a leader in the lawyers' revolt against Musharraf. During the summer, he appeared daily on television and before cheering crowds, demanding that Musharraf respect Pakistan's constitution and permit an independent judiciary.

In November, Musharraf had Ahsan arrested under an emergency rule decree. Ahsan took a harder line against Musharraf than his boss, who negotiated with the former general for months on a possible power-sharing arrangement and agreed to take part in parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8. Ahsan advocated boycotting the vote unless Musharraf restored Chaudhury, whom he deposed along with other judges under the emergency decree.

Ahsan is ``one of the stalwarts of the PPP and he has been under house arrest for over a month,'' a status that increases his popular legitimacy as a Musharraf opponent, said Rais, the Lahore political scientist.

After Bhutto's death, Ahsan sobbed aloud in a BBC radio interview from house arrest in Lahore. He gave no sign of his plans.

``I think that Pakistan has entered a great period of uncertainty with the death of Benazir Bhutto,'' said Karl Inderfurth, a professor of international relations at George Washington University and former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. ``She leaves a big void behind, and it will take some time for the country and its leaders to sort out what happens next.'' ( Bloomberg )

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