Another Bhutto in Pakistan

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AAMIR QURESHI / AFP / Getty Images

Newly appointed chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, speaks during a press conference on Dec. 30, 2007.

The son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was named co-chair of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) at a party meeting in the Bhuttos' ancestral town on Sunday. Bilawal, a 19-year-old student at Christ Church, Oxford, will lead the party with his father Asif Ali Zardari. "I stand committed to the stability of the federation," Bilawal said in an extraordinary and emotional press conference following the meeting. Speaking in English, his voice rising to a youthful shout towards the end of his short initial statement, and fighting back tears, Bilawal told supporters, "My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."

Bilawal read his mother's will to a closed meeting of senior party officials on Sunday afternoon. The document, which Benazir wrote two days before she returned to Pakistan last October, after eight years of self-imposed exile, apparently called for Zardari to take the reins of the party. But Bhutto's controversial husband says he wanted the family's political legacy to pass to his son, who he said would now be known as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Party supporters immediately began chanting, "Long live Bilawal Bhutto."

Bilawal, who has spent much of his life outside Pakistan, said that his father will handle the day-to-day affairs of the PPP until he finishes his studies in England. The younger man will then return to lead the party. Zidari was openly protective of his son during the press conference, at one point saying that he, not Bilawal, would answer all questions because while the young man may be the head of one of Pakistan's biggest parties he was "of a tender age."

The announcement of the PPP's new leadership team — party loyalist Mukhdoom Amin Fahim will be the party's prime ministerial candidate in any election — answered one of the many questions that Pakistan has faced since Benazir's murder in a shooting and suicide bomb attack as she left a political rally on Thursday evening.

The PPP confirmed that it would contest upcoming elections, which are due on Jan. 8. But those polls are now likely to be put off because of the continuing violent unrest around the country. The ruling PML-Q party said the election would likely be delayed by three months or so, in part because several electoral offices have been ransacked and burned in the chaos that was unleashed by Benazir's assassination. Tariq Azim of the ruling party said the vote would not be credible if held on Jan. 8 as planned.

The country's other major opposition party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), initially said that it would boycott the election. But today party officials said the party would participate if the PPP did.

The PPP will be keen for the poll to take place as soon as possible so the party can capitalize on the outpouring of sympathy for Benazir, who, though a divisive figure for many, was loved by millions. Bilawal's focus on the "stability of the federation" was significant. Following Benazir's death, the worst violence was in her home province of Sindh, where talk of separation has been growing. While Pakistan is under no immediate threat of a breakup, the presence of a Bhutto at the head of the country's main opposition party will be a reassuring sight to its supporters. Indeed, the PPP is the one party in Pakistan that draws significant support from across the nation. Its followers will hope that the party soon gets another chance to test that support.

At Oxford, Bilawal is known as "Bilawal Lawalib," the last name a backward spelling of the first. Although he seems to have made efforts to disguise his identity, it was well known at Christ Church that he was the son of Benazir, and he often made reference to his mother in his profile on Facebook.

Phillippa Neal, 19, lives in the same on-campus housing as Bilawal. She says he was not accompanied by any security at Oxford. According to Neal, Bilawal posted a statement from his mother the day of her assassination, which read: "You can imprison a man but not an idea. You can exile a man but not an idea. You can kill a man but not an idea. — Benazir Bhutto." The day of the assassination his Facebook status read: "Well behaved women rarely make history." Neal is not sure whether that quote was portentous or posted after Benazir's assassination. "I never discussed politics with him but there was a sense through his Facebook profile that he was very aware of the political situation in Pakistan," says Neal. "Several months ago, his profile picture on Facebook was a [satirical] Punch cartoon caricature of President Musharraf. He is a very sociable student and very well liked."

Luke Tryl, last year's president of the Oxford Union debating society, says Benazir was a former president of the society and her son took interest in the famous group. Tryl, 20 , says Bilawal attended many Oxford Union debates in his first few months at Oxford and says that Bilawal is an engaging and sociable young man. The question is, can he lead a party — or even a country?