A canceled rally, a loathed president and a party chairman kept out of the public glare because of Taliban threats — Gulzar Ali Khawaja has never seen anything like it.
For the first time in his life, Khawaja, a once ardent supporter of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that has led the coalition government for five years, says he will not be voting in Pakistan’s general election on May 11 and does not mince his words about why.
Furious, he cannot believe that no major party leader addressed the crowds on one of the PPP’s most sacrosanct dates: the anniversary of the April 4, 1979, hanging of its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
“I come here all the way from Karachi to pray on the anniversary and they can’t come?” said the 45-year-old property dealer, who drove nine hours from Pakistan’s financial capital to the Bhutto ancestral seat in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh. “[Pakistani] President Asif Ali Zardari has spoiled the party.”
The party said it would kickstart its campaign for re-election after five years in office with a large rally on Thursday, but then canceled it.
Zardari, the widower of slain former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, addressed a small crowd, closed to all but state media, in the middle of the night.
Bilawal, the PPP’s star attraction, appeared uncomfortable, speaking haltingly in heavily accented Urdu, a mark of his upbringing in England and Dubai.
He stumbled through the outgoing government’s achievements before asking listeners to “promise” to vote for “Aunty Faryal” — Zardari’s sister — who is contesting the Bhutto family seat.
Few party faithful who gathered at the shrine were impressed.
“Bilawal should not listen to anyone and come out into the public to see the workers as his mother and grandfather did,” Khawaja said.
In contrast, their main rivals, cricketer Imran Khan and frontrunner and former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, have start major campaigns drawing thousands.
PPP spokesman and former Cabinet minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters that the party respected people’s desire to see Bilawal, but the danger was too great.
“We can’t expose Bilawal to the real threat of terrorism. We can’t risk the life of another top leader,” he said.
The Taliban have directly threatened the PPP and its main coalition partners, the Awami National Party and Muttahida Quami Movement, often described as “secular.”
During Pakistan’s last election campaign, Benazir Bhutto defied repeated threats to address enormous rallies across the country.
When she was killed in a gun and suicide attack after a rally in Rawalpindi in 2007, it shocked the party and the country.
Aged 24, Bilawal is chairman of the party, but ineligible to run for office until his 25th birthday in September. Analysts say he appears uncomfortable in public and needs to work on his language skills.
Zardari, said to be deeply paranoid about security, is also rarely seen in public. He remains deeply unpopular over a multitude of corruption allegations.
“We want Bilawal to come here, to see us, to talk to us and address the workers’ problems. We miss the love and affection of his mother and grandfather,” said Muhammad Urs, 41, who sells snacks in the Garhi Khuda Bakhsh Market.
Urs, a life-long PPP voter, threatened not to cast his ballot “until they come and talk to us.”
However, Kaira dismissed big rallies as winners of elections, instead pointing to television and the Internet to reach larger audiences, even though the percentage of the population that has regular online access is tiny.
However, Muhammad Panah Soomro, a laborer in the village of Bangaldero not far from the Bhutto shrine, is furious.
“I will show them my shoe if they will come here to seek my vote,” he said. “Bilawal doesn’t come here. He’s a rich man and lives abroad. His father is the biggest goon and has looted away his mother’s party and wealth.”
Critics say that while the PPP has presided over the country, the economy has worsened and security has deteriorated, and they blame it for failing to do more to improve people’s lives.
They say that a dynastic party, obsessed with the martyrdom of its fallen leaders and pilloried for corruption and incompetency, is losing touch with the center-left progressive ideology on which it was founded in the 1960s.