Beyond Benazir

The Pakistan Peoples Party's decision to elect Benazir Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as co-chairs of the party in the aftermath of her assassination is being criticized as representing dynastic politics that do not promote democracy.

But a distinction needs to be made between dynastic politics and the politics of family legacy. And the context of such family-based leadership needs to be understood.

Much of the recent coverage of events characterizes Pakistan as facing a choice between flawed, family-oriented and often corrupt politics and the supposed stability provided by a military-intelligence establishment that has fostered terrorism for years. The international community, including the United States, must side with Pakistan's politicians, whatever their real or perceived faults. An unaccountable secret service and a military leader with delusions of regional grandeur could keep Pakistan, and its neighbors, mired in endless violence.

It is difficult for Americans to understand a situation in which a well-organized political party unites around the charisma of a single family while retaining a vast pool of talented leaders. But family legacies have worked to build democracies in countries as far apart as Greece and India.

The Papandreou and Karamanlis families provide leaders for rival parties in Greece, and the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the focal point for the Indian National Congress. The Pakistan Peoples Party, like other parties with family-based leadership, has a lot of talent in its ranks. That talent would remain available to Bhutto's husband and son. The choice of leaders from a particular family is often important for its symbolism and does not make the party a family fiefdom.

There is a fundamental divide in Pakistan. On one side stands the civil-military oligarchy (currently headed by Pervez Musharraf) that rules with the covert machinations of an all-powerful intelligence service, which fixes elections, divides parties and buys off politicians at will. On the other side are politicians who question the military-intelligence oligarchy's right to rule and pay the price by being periodically jailed and frequently vilified.

If, in the aftermath of Bhutto's tragic assassination, the party had taken time to go through the entire process of a party primary or intra-party election, the intelligence apparatus would have actively worked to divide Pakistan's largest opposition party, with the huge resources of the state, considerably boosted by U.S. anti-terrorism funding, at their disposal. By rallying the party base around Bhutto's son and husband, the party has saved itself from the intrigues of Musharraf's secret services.

Some view the Bhutto legacy as a thorn in Pakistan's history. But to the family's supporters, the Bhutto name represents a wealthy family that spoke for redistribution of wealth in an elitist state during the late 1960s, when much of Pakistan's economic growth just went to 22 major families. Since 1967, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan Peoples Party, the country's poor have continued to identify with it. The number of the well-to-do in Pakistan has increased manifold over the years, but the country still has 65 million people living below the poverty line and another 65 million living just above it — a total of 130 million poor people in a country of 160 million.

The Bhuttos have not been perfect, as critics remind us on a regular basis, and their stints in power did not always fulfill expectations. Western-educated Pakistanis, including professionals living in the U.S., resent what they consider feudal politics. But most of them refuse to engage in the political process and pay the price of combating militarism and dictatorship. And the removal of each Bhutto government by military or palace coup has only added to the aura of the family's struggle and sacrifice against military dominance.

As managers, Pakistan's politicians might not meet the standards of their country's professional elite. But they have the courage to question dictators and remain connected to the masses when the elites simply neglect them.

The visceral association with the Bhutto family and the PPP of millions of Pakistanis cannot be explained without reference to the value of sentiments in politics. And as Drew Weston's book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," demonstrates, even in the United States, feelings trump cold analysis in the making of political choices.

Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University, is co-chair of the Hudson Institute's Project on Islam and Democracy, author of "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military" and a former advisor to Benazir Bhutto.

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