Bhutto's Successor

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Declan Walsh / Getty Images

Bilawal Bhutto, 19-year-old son of Benazir Bhutto, and Asif Zardari, Bhutto's husband stand over the grave of the former Pakistani opposition leader after her burial inside the family mausoleum on the family estate, on December 28, 2007.

Benazir Bhutto's son has been anointed her successor, the slain former prime minister's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) confirmed today. A senior PPP official had told TIME late Saturday that Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, would likely be named as her political heir and the new party leader on Sunday. PPP members met this morning to discuss the party's future and to give Bilawal, a student at Oxford, a chance to read his mother's last will and testament.

A Pakistani television news channel also carried reports on Saturday that Bilawal would be made the new leader, which the channel said accorded with Benazir Bhutto's wishes. The teenager will become the third leader of the 40-year-old center-left party, one of Pakistan's most powerful. Bilawal will follow his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the PPP in 1967, led Pakistan as Prime Minister for four years in the mid 1970s and was hanged in 1979 by a military government, and Benazir, who took over from her father and was killed in a shooting and suicide bomb attack two days ago.

The quick anointment of a Bhutto to head the PPP will help rally party members devastated by the assassination of their tough but beloved leader. The party hopes to ride a wave of sympathy in parliamentary elections that are set for Jan. 8 but may yet be postponed in the face of widespread violence around the country. Rival opposition parties have called for a boycott of the polls but PPP officials say their party intends to participate.

Bilawal was born in September 1988, nearly three months before his mother was elected Prime Minister for the first time. After Benazir and her children went into self-imposed exile in the late 1990s, the family split their time between London and Dubai, where Bilawal attended the Rashid School for Boys, serving as Vice President of the school's student council. In Fall 2007 he enrolled at Oxford, where both his grandfather and his mother studied. A 2004 profile of Bilawal in the respected Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn said the teenager liked target-shooting, swimming, horseback riding and squash, and regretted being away from Pakistan in part because it meant he played less cricket. His grandfather, he said, "was a very courageous man and I consider myself very lucky because I have three powerful role models that will obviously influence my career choices when I am older."

As PPP members have begun to contemplate who should take over as party leader, a consensus has emerged that the person needs to be a Bhutto, a name that retains incredible power and vote-winning influence in secular Pakistan despite — or perhaps because of — the tragedies and controversies the family has faced. It is not the first time a young Bhutto has taken over from a dead parent. "This was also the situation when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was murdered," says Babar Awan, a PPP Senator and close ally of Benazir. "Benazir was a teenager, she was a student at Harvard in 1979 [when Zulfikar Ali was hanged]. It is basically the hard core of the PPP that rallies around their great hope and that they attach to the House of Bhutto."

Many people had tipped Benazir's husband Asif Ali Zardari for the top spot — and he will serve as co-chairman of the PPP. An experienced politician, Zardari served as Environment Minister in his wife's second administration. But he is also a controversial figure in Pakistan, and has spent a total of 11 years in prison on various charges including blackmail and corruption, for which he earned the nickname "Mr. 10%." Supporters dismiss these charges, most of which have been thrown out of Pakistani courts (a few are still pending), as politically related mischief. "He's a strong man," says PPP Senator Awan. "All of us are controversial. Wasn't Benazir Bhutto? Wasn't Zulfikar Ali Bhutto? All those who don't accept the military role in politics are controversial. The charges are 100% unfounded and fake."

Other possible runners had included Benazir's sister Sanam, though she seemed incredibly reluctant to join the family firm, or Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali's eldest son Murtaza. Fatima, however, had split with her aunt Benazir, whom she once described as "the most dangerous woman in Pakistan." The decision to go with Bilawal appears to have come after his father turned down the job in deference to the slain Benazir's expressed wishes. The senior PPP official, who requested anonymity to allow him to speak more openly, told TIME that Bilawal will head the party, and that the party's deputy leader and longtime Benazir loyalist, Mukhdoom Amin Fahim, is likely to become the prime minister, assuming the party wins a majority in parliament. Bilawal would take over as the parliamentary leader once he finishes his studies and once he has more experience, the official said. Earlier in the day PPP Senator Awan told TIME that Bilawal was a natural future leader. "Yes, of course," he said. "he has to be groomed and trained but that will happen."

The young Bhutto, Benazir's only son, knows the dangers of the job he might be about to take on. Last year Benazir told a reporter that she hoped her three children would choose a different career. "My children have told me they are very worried about my safety," she said. "I understand those fears. But they are Bhuttos and we have to face the future with courage, whatever it brings."

—With reporting by Jumana Farouky/London and Khuda Yar Khan/Islamabad