ISLAMABAD – The most popular politician in Pakistan’s largest party won’t be staging any rallies or participating in debates as May’s historic national election nears.
The reason: She’s dead.
Yet Benazir Bhutto, assassinated more than five years ago, is still the standard bearer of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In its TV commercials and banners, she has been pushed to the forefront of the party’s uphill campaign to return to power in Parliament after a widely criticized five-year term.
Hers is the face of the party on its official manifesto. She looms over smaller photos of her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, and their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who lead the party but are rarely seen in public.
The PPP’s campaign in the runup to the May 11 vote has been proscribed by security concerns. The Pakistani Taliban, which asserted responsibility for Bhutto’s murder, has warned the secular party that its candidates and rallies will be attacked. In recent weeks the militants have killed several leaders and workers in the parties that formed the PPP government’s ruling coalition.
That may be part of the reason that Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister and was Pakistan’s only woman premier, has become a constant presence in the race.
But her embattled party really has no other option but to stress its lineage, analysts say. The newly ended government was marred by an economic meltdown and persistent corruption cases against top officials.
Even though the party and its coalition partners made history as the first civilian government in Pakistan’s 65-year history to complete a full term — thereby shepherding a democratic transition of power — that accomplishment has not lowered the price of wheat or gasoline, given people jobs or diminished poverty.
Zardari polls miserably. The former prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was drummed from office by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year for refusing to submit to its orders to reopen a money laundering case against Zardari. And the public blames Gilani’s successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, a former energy minister, for crippling electrical and natural gas shortages.
Bhutto Zardari, 24, is too young to run for a seat in the May 11 election — the minimum age in Pakistan is 25.
In a video released Tuesday, the party heir reassured voters that he “wanted to launch the election campaign in the streets of my country alongside my workers,” but he said it was too dangerous.
“Once again the enemies of peace and prosperity are standing in front of us,” Bhutto Zardari said.
So the party is left with only ghosts to burnish its image.
In campaign ads and on placards, Benazir Bhutto is always clad in a fashionable headscarf — in some photos merely casting a serene gaze, in others raising an arm forcefully, as if at an eternal rally. The latter image has been paired with one of her son giving a victory sign.
In placards hung around the capital, Islamabad, touting one of the party’s National Assembly candidates, Bhutto takes the top position — usually reserved for living prime minister candidates in other parties’ signs.
The PPP’s signage and literature also rarely fail to invoke the memory of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who founded the party and later served as Pakistan’s prime minister and president.
Both of them are bestowed the title “shaheed,” or martyr, whenever mentioned in party speeches and materials.
“She has got a cult status, and the Bhutto name has got a cult status,” said Usman Khalid, a former Pakistani Army brigadier general. “Martyrdom and martyrs matter.”
As the old PPP slogan goes: “Bhutto is still alive today and Bhutto will still be alive tomorrow.”