NAUDERO, Pakistan - The party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto tapped her 19-year-old son yesterday as its new chairman, preserving one of Asia's most enduring political dynasties - but it turned real power over to her husband, a onetime businessman dogged by corruption allegations.
The Pakistan Peoples Party also announced it would contest national parliamentary elections called for Jan. 8. The elections are intended to transition the Islamic, insurgency-torn nuclear power from more than eight years of military rule to a civilian democratic government.
Senior leaders of the party, the nation's largest opposition group, made the decisions two days after Bhutto's funeral in an apparent bid to capitalize on the nationwide outpouring of sympathy ignited by her assassination. Many Pakistanis blame U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as army chief this month, for her assassination Thursday after a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
"My mother always said that democracy is the best revenge," Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, declared during a news conference at the family's ancestral home in rural Sindh province.
The Peoples Party announcement that it would participate in the election prompted the other major opposition group, the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to reverse its decision to boycott the contest.
But widespread violence triggered by Bhutto's assassination, including attacks on election commission offices, raised the possibility that the elections may be postponed. The federal Election Commission was expected to announce today whether the voting would go ahead.
The White House, which had been pushing Bhutto to form a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf, said yesterday that the timing of elections "will be up to the Pakistanis."
"It is up to the political parties in Pakistan to choose their leaders," spokesman Scott Stanzel said from Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was vacationing.
Much of Pakistan remained paralyzed on the third day of a strike called to protest Bhutto's slaying, with businesses closed, public transportation stalled, and the country's main port of Karachi shut.
But with troops and paramilitary forces called out to reinforce police, there were no reports of serious unrest, which has claimed at least 44 lives around the impoverished country of 165 million.
Bhutto's death and the wave of arson, shootings and clashes between protesters and security forces have shaken a country already convulsed by ethnic and religious tensions, widespread demands for Musharraf's ouster and a growing insurgency, based in northwestern tribal regions controlled by Islamic militants allied with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, flanked by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, and other senior party officials, accepted the party chairmanship in a short statement read in a clipped British accent. Because he has spent most of his life in exile abroad with his mother, he is believed to speak little or no Urdu, Pakistan's national language.
He said he would be resuming his studies as a first-year student at Britain's Oxford University, which his mother also attended, before taking over the top slot of the party founded by his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
"The party's long and historic struggle with democracy will continue with renewed vigor," he declared.
In the meantime, Asif Ali Zardari, who was named cochairman, will preside over the party's day-to-day affairs. He quickly took control of the news conference, at one point stopping reporters from questioning his son, who he said was at "a tender age."
Party officials said Bhutto named her husband as her sole successor in a will read by Bilawal Zardari during a four-hour central executive committee session. But Asif Ali Zardari decided to give the top post to his son, and during the news conference indicated that party vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim would be the candidate for prime minister if the party wins the elections.
Political analysts said the decision reflected concerns that the country's only real national party would collapse unless it was headed by a member of the Bhutto family. Bilawal Zardari used his father's last name until Saturday, when he changed it to Bhutto Zardari.
Ahmed Quraishi, a political commentator, said Asif Ali Zardari is not liked within the Peoples Party.
Zardari also carries an unsavory reputation. During the two periods in which his wife served as prime minister, the former small-time businessman came to be known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly accepting kickbacks on government contracts. He was jailed for eight years on charges ranging from murder to corruption, but nothing was ever proved, and he was released in 2004.
Zardari, who insists the accusations were false and politically motivated, reportedly still faces money-laundering charges in Switzerland.
He said the party would push for a U.N. investigation into Bhutto's slaying along the lines of a probe into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The demand comes amid conflicting accounts by the government of how Bhutto died that have helped stoke a widespread impression of official complicity.
The government first said she was shot as she stood in the sunroof of her armored vehicle, waving to crowds after a rally in the northern city of Rawalpindi, before a suicide bomber detonated his explosives. It blamed Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
The Interior Ministry later contended that Bhutto died after she cracked her skull on the sunroof latch as she dropped into the vehicle.
Zardari, who referred to Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q as the "killer league," insisted she had been shot, and confirmed that he had prohibited a postmortem.
"We know what the wound is, we know how it was done," he contended. "We don't need postmortems to prove the death. Therefore I refuse to give them the last remains, because they belong to God and the people of Pakistan. I buried her with honor. I was not going to give it to them."
Key Figures in Bhutto Clan
Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto: Late grandfather of Benazir Bhutto. Senior figure in the Pakistan Muslim League, the party that helped split Pakistan from India and lead it to independence in 1947.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: Benazir Bhutto's father. Became prime minister in 1971 after founding the populist Pakistan Peoples Party with the motto "Food, shelter and clothing for all." Executed in 1979 by military ruler Mohammed Zia ul-Haq's government on charges of arranging the murder of a political opponent's father.
Nusrat Bhutto: Benazir Bhutto's mother. Lawmaker who took control of her husband's party after his death. Soon eclipsed by her ambitious daughter and has not been seen in public in recent years because of illness.
Benazir Bhutto: Took over the leadership of her father's party; in 1988 elected the Islamic world's first female prime minister but fired 20 months later on corruption accusations by the country's military-backed president. Elected again in 1993, only to be removed three years later. Slain Thursday as she campaigned to become premier again.
Murtaza Bhutto: Older of Benazir Bhutto's two brothers; died in a 1996 shoot-out with police just outside his Karachi residence while his sister was prime minister.
Shahnawaz Bhutto: Younger brother; organized opposition from France but died under mysterious circumstances in 1985 in his apartment on the Riviera.
Ghinwa Bhutto: Murtaza's wife. Accused Bhutto and her husband of planning Murtaza's killing. Founded a breakaway faction of the Peoples Party that garners few votes.
Fatima Bhutto: Ghinwa's 25-year-old daughter. Has criticized Benazir Bhutto in her columns for the English-language daily the News. Educated and headstrong, she had been touted as a possible successor at the helm of the Peoples Party.
Asif Ali Zardari: Benazir Bhutto's widower and a former cabinet minister who spent eight years in prison on corruption accusations. On orders in Bhutto's will, he has replaced her as head of the Peoples Party.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: Benazir Bhutto's son, 19, and the eldest of her three children. A student at Oxford University, he has spent much of his life abroad. Was named official chairman of the Peoples Party.
SOURCE: Associated PressEndText
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