ISLAMABAD // The Bhutto family, Pakistan's premier political dynasty, is stirring. Some members have come forward to reclaim their political legacy and the party they founded, the Pakistan People's Party, which they claim has been "hijacked" by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister assassinated last year. There is talk of PPP stalwarts, who were sidelined by Mr Zardari, scheming with the Bhutto family to mount a challenge - either within the party or, more likely, by forming a breakaway group.
That Mr Zardari now single-handedly runs the party and, it seems, the country, was demonstrated again this week when Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, and several cabinet ministers were summoned to Dubai, where Mr Zardari was vacationing, for a meeting. The PPP is vulnerable. For the first time in its 40-year history, it is not led by a Bhutto. Complicating its internal problems is that it came to power in February, as Pakistan faced economic and security crises. That makes governing the country extremely challenging and the criticism is piling up.
"It has become totally intolerable that this man [Mr Zardari] should use the Bhutto name It is now a very different story to two or three months ago," said Mumtaz Bhutto, family patriarch and the cousin of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father and founder of the PPP. It is unclear exactly where that Bhutto legacy now lies. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had four children, of which three were murdered; sons Shahnawaz and Murtaza, and then in December last year, Benazir, his daughter and apparent anointed heir. The fourth child, Sanam, does not live in Pakistan and has never played any role in politics. Murtaza's widow, Ghinwa, and their daughter, Fatima, a Columbia University graduate who is in her mid-20s, are active in politics.
Speculation about a concerted family move grew this week after the arrival in Pakistan of Sassi Bhutto, the 26-year-old daughter of Shahnawaz, on her first visit to the country as an adult from her home in the United States. Past splits from the party have never succeeded. The PPP is the best-organised and only true national party in Pakistan, presenting a formidable political machine. But it has always gelled around the Bhutto magic, a devotion to the memory of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a populist who inspired the poor. In the 2008 elections, Benazir had only just been killed, and the party capitalised on the Bhutto name, invoking her and her father at every opportunity.
Mr Zardari now gives speeches in which he talks as if he is a Bhutto, speaking about "our sacrifices". He also cleverly injected some Bhutto sparkle back into the party by co-opting his son and oldest child, Bilawal, a student at Oxford University, to be co-chairman when his mother died. Bilawal then added Bhutto as his middle name. Mr Zardari is the co-chairman but though he is not even a member of parliament, the party's ministers and prime minister seem to hang on his every word.
"A lot of genuine PPP people are in touch with us and a new scenario is in the making. Because this seems to be the end of the [Pakistan] People's Party," said Mumtaz Bhutto. The PPP-led government has quickly acquired a reputation for corruption, mismanagement and mendacity. Mr Zardari's cronies have been given key political positions, the economy continues to slide dangerously, while the party relies on obfuscation and rhetoric on important issues such as the restoration of the judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf, the president.
Mumtaz Bhutto, who served as a minister in the first PPP government in the 1970s, but fell out with Benazir Bhutto after her father was executed in 1979, has his own political party, the Sindh National Front. Ghinwa Bhutto heads another group, the Shaheed-Bhutto Pakistan People's Party. Neither party has made an impact electorally. But now, as well as the loss of the Bhutto attraction from the PPP, there are a lot of senior disaffected party leaders who find themselves out in the wilderness. This includes Amin Fahim, who led the party in Pakistan while Benazir was in exile, and Naheed Khan, Benazir's loyal political secretary.
Aitzaz Ahsan, a charismatic former interior minister who now heads Pakistan's popular lawyers movement, is another outcast. While all remain within the PPP and have professed loyalty to it, they are known to be very unhappy. Mr Fahim said in a recent television appearance: "A line has been drawn between Benazir Bhutto's old party and the new one. The old one has been put to one side. I don't know why."
There are rumours of meetings between PPP stalwarts and members of the Bhutto family. And Mumtaz, together with Ghinwa, Fatima and Sassi, have been holding rallies in Sindh province. "The split [in the Pakistan People's Party] appears to be real," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "The next four or five years will be defining for the party. It is not inevitable that it will lose its base. But the next time round, at the next election, it will be legitimacy stemming from performance, not inheritance, that will decide."
At the next election, which some commentators foresee happening within a year or two, the PPP will come up against a powerful challenge from Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N. Mr Sharif, a former prime minister, has been able to capitalise on the inability of the PPP to solve Pakistan's judicial crisis, and many see him as the only national leader left, now that Benazir is gone. The potency of the Sharif challenge, the danger that they might lose their seats, may convince some in the PPP to break from Mr Zardari.
The PPP, however, is denying a split is in the offing. "So far, I have not come across solid evidence of this kind of move," Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the PPP, said. There have been four breakaways from the PPP in the past but none have gained a significant following. The party was still able to ride the 2008 election on the Bhutto name but it seems likely that, from now on, it will have to live without that dynastic pulling-power.