Benazir's Niece Not Interested in Bhutto Crown

The death of Benazir Bhutto created a void that no man can ever replace.

The former Pakistani prime minister was the first female leader of a Muslim country, a politician whose image as a strong woman reached far outside of Pakistan. Her party is now run by her husband and her son, but might there be another Bhutto — another woman — who could one day take her place ?

Sitting in the garden where Benazir was married and where Benazir's father created the Pakistan People's Party in 1968, 25-year-old Fatima Bhutto seems to play the part. She is smart, eloquent, striking, and most importantly, a Bhutto.


And although she is Benazir's niece and the oldest grandchild of the PPP's founder, she rejects what some consider to be her blood right.

"I don't want in any way to perpetuate dynasty," she said. "If we lived in a different system where ordinary Pakistanis like myself had access to the political process, had access to the representatives, that would be a different story. But we don't have that."

Of course, no matter what she says, Fatima Bhutto is no ordinary Pakistani, and she has access. Her father was Benazir's brother, her mother is a politician and she is six years older than her cousin Bilawal, the 19-year-old who's been anointed as the future leader of the PPP, the most popular party in Pakistan.

This is a country where dynasties are worshipped, and in a party that has been led by a Bhutto since the day it was created, Fatima would fit right in — if she wanted to.

"It's important to speak out against dynastic politics, to speak out against this system of governance that is not democratic. It is not useful to the people. It doesn't empower the people. It doesn't strengthen democratic institutions. And it's really akin to monarchy — it's political inbreeding, in a way."

Politics in this country and this part of the world is dominated by dynasties. The Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka, the Gandhi/Nehrus in India, the Bhuttos in Pakistan. But Fatima is on the other side of a decades-old family split, and she has publicly criticized the people who are responsible for nominating her cousin Bilawal to the stewardship of the party.

Benazir's only son, Bilawal speaks virtually no Urdu, has never lived in Pakistan and is six years too young to be elected. But he will inherit the Pakistan People's Party — essentially the family business — when he finishes studying at Oxford.

While Fatima is keen to criticize the party, she is not willing in this interview to speak against her young cousin.

"He's my cousin. And I'll always love him," she said with a sigh. "I was 14 when my father was killed. Bilawal is 19. So I know I know what it feels like. I know what it feels like to lose a parent to violence."

But she does not exude the same level of sympathy to all family and party members.

"I think the party was hijacked a very long time ago. And it became a party of feudal landlords, industrialists, wealthy socialites," she said.

Why, she asks, does the party have to be led by a Bhutto? "Politics of personality are dangerous. … When we vote for people because of their name, that means we don't vote for them for their platform, and it means they're not answerable for their platforms or for their political agenda."

Fatima hasn't been able to completely escape politics. Her mother is an elected representative and the head of a wing of the PPP. Fatima is spending this week campaigning in Larkana, the Bhutto ancestral home.

But she spends most of her time writing. She has a weekly column and has published two books, one of poetry, the other about the earthquake that devastated north Pakistan in 2005.

"I think being political means having a stake," she said when asked why she doesn't want to run for office. "And I have that through my writing. I'm not interested in power. I'm interested in change and I think there's many ways you can achieve that. … I don't think government is necessarily the best way."

Fatima's inspiration for her writing was her father, Murtaza, Benazir's brother, who died in a hail of more than 70 bullets fired by police and snipers outside his home in 1996. Fatima still lives there with her mother, and the family has always blamed his death on Benazir, who was prime minister at the time, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

"The police in Karachi at the time were known for these target killings, their torture squads, their assassination squads," she said. "And they acted with impunity given to them by the state."

Even before the assassination, the distrust between Murtaza's side of the family and Benazir's ran deep. Murtaza split with his sister when he returned from exile and he openly challenged Zardari, whom he viewed as a crook and an interloper into the family.

It is widely speculated in Pakistan that Zardari had Murtaza killed after the latter cut off the former's mustache. Zardari, who would later be arrested for allegedly having a role in the assassination, was never charged.

Fatima's mother, Ghinwa Bhutto, got into a public tit-for-tat with Benazir.

"That was the time, maybe, for her also to change her line of politics or to realize her mistakes," Ghinwa, who was born in Lebanon, said in late 1996.

Benazir reportedly called Ghinwa a "Lebanese belly dancer" and added to a TV interviewer in 1996: "A Lebanese whose own husband didn't give her a Pakistani passport. It's a joke."

Fatima became one of her aunt's most outspoken critics. In the month before Benazir returned from exile for the first time in eight years, Fatima delivered scathing critiques of her aunt's political past, referring to her as "Mrs. Zardari" and accusing her of being a "demo-dictator," a "sheep in designer wolves clothing."

"This country and its foundations," Fatima wrote in the days before Benazir returned, "have been severely mutilated. We will have a corpse of a nation, and that's just as well because the gravediggers are on their way to celebrate."

Since the assassination, Fatima says, she has been trying to reconcile the "two Benazirs" she knew.

"The first Benazir was a young woman who was a little older than I am now when she was fighting, struggling in Pakistan against a behemoth of a dictatorship. And she suffered a lot in that period. And then there's the Benazir after power. And that Benazir caused a lot of suffering for others. I try to remember her as the first, as the Benazir I knew and loved as a young girl."

When she was just 35 years old, Benazir became the first woman to lead a Muslim country. Fatima, for now, has no similar ambition, content to use her column to critique the establishment, to critique the terrorists and to critique her family and its dynastic politics.

"It belongs to the people," she said of the PPP. "It's not a copyright of one man. And it's not a copyright of one family."