The 24-year-old son of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto launched his political career on Thursday with a fiery speech before thousands of cheering supporters observing the fifth anniversary of his mother’s assassination.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech comes several months before national elections are expected to be held. He is too young to participate in the elections himself — the minimum age is 25 — but is likely to be a key asset for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
The party’s popularity has plummeted since it took power nearly five years ago as the country has struggled with a weak economy and bloody Taliban insurgency.
Before dawn on the same day, dozens of militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons attacked two tribal police posts in Pakistan’s northwest, killing two policemen, officials said. Twenty-one other policemen are missing and presumed kidnapped.
Zardari was made chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party after his mother’s death, but has mainly played a background role while he completed his studies at Oxford University in Britain.
“I want to tell you that thanks to God he has completed his studies, but now is the time of his training,” his father, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, told the crowd of supporters on Thursday in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh village in southern Sindh Province, site of the Bhutto family mausoleum.
“He has to study Pakistan, he has to learn from you and he has to work according to your thinking,” Zardari added.
The Bhutto family has played a prominent role in Pakistani politics for much of the country’s 65-year history.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded the Pakistan People’s Party and served as both the country’s president and prime minister in the 1970s. He was eventually hanged in 1979 after General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a military coup.
Benazir Bhutto twice served as prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s, but never completed a full term. She was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack on Dec. 27, 2007.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said it was not a surprise that the Pakistan People’s Party unveiled Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in an attempt to boost its fortunes in the upcoming elections, which are expected by June at the latest.
“This is Pakistan and dynastic politics is the norm,” Rais said.
“Bilawal is perhaps the only card left in the chest of the Pakistan People’s Party,” he added.
The attack on the tribal police posts before dawn on Thursday took place in the town of Darra Adam Khel in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, officials said.
The town is near Pakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for Taliban militants in the country.
Security forces have launched an operation to try to recover the 21 missing policemen, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion will likely fall on the Pakistani Taliban