Pakistan’s Youth Struggle to Find Hope After Bhutto’s Death

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Following the death of charismatic former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, the country\’s youth express a hopeless ambivalence toward Pakistan\’s prospects for democracy.

When asked by reporters about the threat to his own safety following the assassination of his mother and Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari cited a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) saying: “How many Bhuttos can you kill? From every house a Bhutto will come.”

But despite such defiant rhetoric, videos of the Oxford student at the Dec. 30 London press conference during which he was thrust suddenly into the spotlight of the Bhutto legacy — and into the shadow of the Bhutto curse — reveal a nervous boy trying his best to muster the courage to fill the big shoes worn by his mother and grandfather as head of the PPP, the country’s second largest political party.

Bilawal’s nervousness in accepting the responsibility to lead the largest opposition party of a nation spiraling into lawlessness reflects the fear and uncertainty of a generation of Pakistani youth, who, in the wake of Bhutto’s death, more than after any other recent crisis that they’ve had to endure — the dismissal of the judiciary, the suspension of free media, the intensifying terrorism — display a kind of hopelessness about their country’s prospects.

“Benazir’s assassination, no matter how early on it was predicted, still came as a big shock and has left a great void in Pakistani politics,” said Zareen Rathor, 25, who works at an advertising firm in Islamabad. “For the youth that supported her, it was like being orphaned. For the youth that didn’t support her, it was still a shaking experience.

“In a country of instability and uncertainty, where the younger generations have yet to flourish, such easy loss of our biggest leaders is unsettling.”

Zulfiqar Ali Umrani, 23, saw a glimmer of hope for Pakistan after the country’s lawyers violently took to the streets in the wake of President Pervez Musharraf’s November imposition of a state of emergency. But that optimism was quashed with the assassination. Bhutto’s death “dealt a serious blow to the reawakening of Pakistan,” Umrani lamented.

Losing Bhutto was particularly devastating for Sarmad Palijo, 26, who cites the former prime minister as an inspiration for his returning to Pakistan and entering politics after graduating from Boston University in 2004. One of his most precious possessions is a photo of himself as a young boy, sitting beside Bhutto, listening to her speak. Sharply dressed in traditional Pakistani garb, the boy appears utterly absorbed in her words.

Like her father, who held audiences enthralled with impassioned speeches, Bhutto’s words also moved crowds. On Oct. 18, thousands, many of them young people, thronged her motorcade to welcome her home after eight years of exile in Dubai and London. At a rally that day in Karachi, the first attempt on her life occurred. Her insistence on continuing to appear in open-air rallies proved fatal two months later, on Dec. 27.

“Immediately after the assassination, I was like ‘That’s it, I’m gone.’ I wanted to leave Pakistan,” admits Palijo, who ran in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections as an alternate “cover candidate” for his sister, an incumbent member of the regional assembly in Sindh, Bhutto’s home province. “If they can kill Benazir, then what chance do normal citizens have?”

Youth Appeal

Through the death of four Bhuttos, enduring hostilities with India, the assassination of numerous other political leaders and increasing suicide attacks, Pakistani youth have been stripped of much of their idealism. They are a hardened, cynical lot that roll their eyes at the promises of politicians, and they accept Pakistan as a land of dizzying contradictions. They have learned from experience that corruption will persist regardless of whether a democrat or a despot is in power. They believe that democracy means little as long as half the country remains illiterate.

Perhaps it is because Bhutto appeared so fearlessly and gracefully to embody Pakistan’s many contradictions that her supporters loved her so. In death, she has been called the most charismatic Pakistani leader in the last 20 years. While alive, like her father, she had rabid opponents. She served two terms — the first lasting only 20 months in 1988 and 1990, and the second between 1993 and 1996 — that both ended prematurely due to corruption charges.

Still, it is clear from her 2008 election manifesto that Bhutto was focused on wooing Pakistan’s 37 million-strong “youth bloc,” which comprises voters between ages 18 and 30. She had proposed policies emphasizing the advancement of Pakistani youth through education, job creation, poverty alleviation, and foreign debt reduction. The PPP’s focus on the rights of minorities and the poor is particularly attractive to lower class youth.

Hard evidence about the voting patterns of Pakistani youth in the Feb. 18 elections will have to await the publication of exit polling data. However, experts agree that Bhutto’s charisma and fiery oratory excited Pakistani youth more than any other candidate in recent history.

“During her two stints as prime minister, jobs were created and women’s rights were advanced — both of which surely had an impact on young people. You could probably argue that Bhutto, as the world’s first Muslim female prime minister, had a particularly positive impact on young Pakistani women and girls,” said Michael Kugelman, program associate for South Asia and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

At the same time, “as a Muslim woman who, at least in the latter phases of her political career, spoke forcefully against terrorism and extremism, there are surely many young Pakistanis who despised her,” Kugelman said.

A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) after Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November, showed the most support for Bhutto in the provinces of Sindh (51 percent) and Balochistan (43 percent). She trailed behind former prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif in Punjab (35 percent vs. 23 percent) and in the North-West Frontier (26 percent vs. 18 percent).

Although the advancement of Pakistani youth had always had prominence in Bhutto’s policies, in Kugelman’s view the youth support she enjoyed was tempered by Pakistan’s ethnic divisions (Sindh vs. Punjab), her strong stance on terrorism and, of course, “the corruption factor.”

As a result of the corruption charges against her, many Punjabi elites and the Musharraf government branded Bhutto’s platform of democracy and social equality a sham. Many would-be supporters also were turned off by her willingness to form an alliance with Musharraf, who most Pakistanis view as a U.S. puppet. In the IRI poll, 61 percent were against a power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Still, public confidence in Bhutto’s abilities appeared to be growing. Although Sharif’s popularity in Punjab made him a serious contender for prime minister, a plurality, 31 percent, felt that Bhutto could best handle the problems facing the nation.

Struggling to Find Hope

The situation is ever tenuous in Pakistan following Bhutto’s death. It is no surprise that in the atmosphere of profound instability and uncertainly following the assassination, many Pakistanis find it difficult to remain hopeful. This bleak outlook is particularly jarring when it comes from the country’s young people, many of whom feel that their political participation or vote will do little to change the situation.

Interviewed prior to the parliamentary elections, Rathor maintained she would not vote for any candidate for prime minister. “I do not believe that any of the candidates are fit to lead this country,” she said. “Everyone here speaks of democracy, very few understand what it means and even fewer have the courage to implement it.”

Naureen Rashid, 30, a New York-based lawyer, was visiting family in Pakistan when Bhutto was assassinated. Although Rashid has lived outside of Pakistan for most of her life, she was shocked by the demise of such a larger-than-life persona in Pakistani politics. “Even as a ‘foreigner,’ it was impossible for me not to be demoralized by growing instability that everyone dreaded,” she recalled. “I didn’t necessarily feel scared, but then again, I had the safety net of knowing that I had a ticket with a return date out of there.”

Many who don’t have a ticket out of Pakistan increasingly express a desire to get out. Nowhere is the desire to leave Pakistan more apparent than among the country’s best and brightest students, who seek scholarships and jobs abroad. A 2005 study found that Pakistan in that year contributed about 13,000 medical graduates to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. A small proportion of these Pakistani graduates return, and a tragedy on the scale of Bhutto’s murder serves as a further deterrent to coming back to the mother land.

“This tragedy does make me less inclined to stay in Pakistan and work for change,” said Umrani, who is leaving on a government scholarship this summer to pursue his Ph.D. at the École Polytechnique in France. Following Bhutto’s death, “there is greater family pressure to live abroad,” he said.

Rasheed Sumar, 28, is concerned about the negative effect of Bhutto’s assassination on the business sector. “This act had filled me with anger as to see what has become of the country we are supposed to call home; a constant paranoia looms above my head,” said Sumar, who helps run his family’s multinational textile company. “In Pakistan, we have not had a single suitable leader in the past 25 years, and when finally Benazir had transformed into a successful leader, she died. If one pays close attention to it, a monotonous pattern emerges. If a Pakistani leader becomes pro-Pakistan, he or she dies.”

In keeping with Pakistan’s tradition of political murder mysteries, the details of Benazir’s assassination remain murky, with the PPP pointing the finger at “the Establishment” and with Musharraf’s government, their case bolstered by the findings of an investigation by Scotland Yard, blaming terrorist factions.

“Discussing politics is a major source of entertainment for the people. Every evening, men of all ages gather at coffee houses and talk politics. We make up our own little conspiracy theories,” Umrani said. “There is a story doing the round these days that Bhutto was assassinated by the Establishment, with the acquiescence of the United States.”

Involvement in politics has drawn Palijo deeper into this culture of paranoia and suspicion. He says that government police were seen cleaning up the assassination site before an investigation could occur. Additionally, he says that in the days after the assassination Musharraf’s government erroneously charged many political opponents with involvement in terrorism.

His sister had been a target of such terrorism charges, according to Palijo. “I filed my papers” as an alternate candidate to the provincial assembly, “just in case something goes wrong with her papers and to discourage our opponents from trying to file applications to bar my sister’s candidature,” Palijo explained.

‘Maybe Some Day . . .’

Even though Palijo wanted to give up the struggle for a democratic Pakistan after Bhutto’s death, he says he quickly realized that doing so would not be honoring her sacrifice.

In a Jan. 18 editorial in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Palijo took up the fight for his country’s democracy with renewed zeal. “We need democracy and we need it now. Let’s not call Musharraf a moderate. Let’s not give him anymore the benefit of the doubt. We might be a poor country but we are not a stupid country,” he wrote. “The world needs to look beyond Musharraf and the terrorists in Pakistan. We are citizens of this world and we deserve democracy.”

Even Umrani, for whom studying and working abroad is an appealing option, says that ultimately he will come back to Pakistan after completing his Ph.D. “We only get one life, why not spend it in a colorful place such as Pakistan,” he said. “And maybe some day, we will win our Pakistan.”

Still, Palijo acknowledges that without Bhutto, inspiration is hard to come by. “Things in Pakistan are not good. It will take ages to come close to filling Benazir Bhutto’s shoes,” he said. “We are hoping and praying because we have no where else to go. This is home.”

While she was alive, Bhutto both united and polarized the people of Pakistan. In death, however, she seems to have united Pakistan in their grief.

“The grief in the case of Benazir Bhutto has been observed across provincial and linguistic boundaries as well as political and socio-economic divides. . . . As a community, it evoked a different response compared to the demise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Zia-ul-Haq when certain segments of the society seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and even rejoice in the tragedy,” said Gallup Pakistan in a statement announcing the release of a January poll, which found that 53 percent of Pakistanis believed it was the right decision to place Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at the PPP’s helm.

While there are plenty who doubt Bhutto Zardari’s ability to lead the PPP, if the shoes do one day fit, he could give Pakistan’s young people a much needed moral boost. If young Pakistanis lost a mother when Bhutto was killed, then they could gain a brother in Bilawal’s ascension to power.

For now, he appears as scared and uncertain as the rest of his generation in Pakistan, but giving up does not appear to be an option. At the press conference in which he accepted his appointment as PPP chair, he displayed a flash of Benazir’s fighting spirit, saying in a booming voice: “My mother always said, ‘Democracy is the best revenge.'” If Bilawal can rise to the challenge, then perhaps Pakistan’s younger generation can as well.

— written by Turna Ray
Ray is a native of Calcutta, India, is a freelance writer based in New York.