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Dec 30, 2007 at 08:53pm IST

The men who will lead Benazir Bhutto's party

New Delhi: The 19-year-old son of slain Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is now heir to the country's most powerful political dynasty.

University student Bilawal Zardari, Bhutto's only son and eldest child, stepped forward to receive the family's inheritance on Sunday, accepting joint leadership of her party, the PPP, along with his father, Asif Ali Zardari.

Bilawal is six years short of the eligible age to stand for parliament and is more familiar with the high streets of Dubai and London, his family homes during Benazir Bhutto's long years of exile, than with Pakistan's troubled electorates.

BENAZIR'S HANDS: Benazir's son, Bilawal (R), has been decreed the Chairman of the PPP and Asif Ali Zardari (L) the co-Chairman.

Bilawal completed his schooling at a prestigious high school in Dubai and recently followed his mother's footsteps to Oxford, but his mother's constant political travails and his father's jail sentence for eight years on "cooked up" graft charges left a deep imprint on him.

In the violent tradition of South Asia's major political dynasties, where leadership can end in a pool of blood, Bilawal finds himself called to centre stage of an epic tragedy.

Almost 30 years before his mother was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack, his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, was hanged by the military regime that had deposed him.

In his few press interviews, an adolescent Bilawal revealed a political conscience and a burning sense of injustice at the way his mother and father had been treated by Pakistan's military and by her chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif.

As a 16-year-old at high school, he told the Press Trust of India in an interview in 2004 that he felt justice and democracy held the key to resolving Pakistan's problems.

Asked if he would one day enter the whirlpool of Pakistani politics, Bilawal, a Taekwondo black-belt and horse-riding enthusiast like his father, was quoted as saying: "We will see, I don't know. I would like to help the people of Pakistan, so I will decide when I finish my studies." He added: "I can either enter politics, or I can enter another career that would benefit the people."

Benazir's widower, Asif Ali Zardari has been appointed co-chariman of the PPP

Benazir Bhutto's party appointed her son Bilawal and her husband Asif Ali Zardari to succeed the slain Pakistani opposition leader on Sunday.

As Bhutto's widower and a former minister in one of her governments, Zardari has the most experience and on paper, is an obvious choice as political heir. But he is a divisive figure who wrestled with allegations of corruption for a decade.

Even some of Benazir's supporters regard him as a flawed character, whose taste for power and the high life undermined her legacy.

Zardari, who spent eight years in jail on corruption and drug-smuggling charges, denied any wrong-doing, accusing Benazir's political opponents of concocting the allegations to ruin them.

Zardari married Benazir in an arranged union brokered by their mothers in 1987, a year before she was elected to her first term as Prime Minister.

The son of a PPP politician, Zardari had the right political pedigree, but it was an uneven match in terms of family wealth and status. Zardari's family owned some farm land and a cinema in Karachi and indulged his passion for polo, but the Bhutto family was one of Pakistan's feudal landowners, an elite that has traditionally dominated Pakistani business and party politics.

Within months of Benazir's first election victory in 1988, allegations of suspicious deals involving state money and Zardari started to surface in newspapers. The president dismissed her government for corruption and misrule in 1990, but it was not until the end of her second term, in 1996, that international inquiries began to rake over state deals and bank transfers.

Zardari, who became known as "Mr 10 Percent", accused Benazir's successor as premier and her old foe, Nawaz Sharif, of trumping up allegations that he had siphoned off state funds and taken multi-million-dollar kickbacks on plane and submarine deals.

For some Pakistanis, though, Zardari showed genuine strength of character during his time in jail, which took a toll on his health.

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