PAKISTAN'S opposition People's Democratic Alliance (PDA), led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, hopes it can score a major victory in national elections scheduled for October.
But Ms. Bhutto, who gained worldwide prominence for being the first woman to lead an Islamic country, is faced with an unexpected family problem: Her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, who has lived in exile for more than 16 years, wants to return to Pakistan to run for office.
That has raised the prospect of a split in the powerful Bhutto family, which has led the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the largest faction of the PDA, for almost 25 years. Murtaza Bhutto, who currently lives in Damascus, Syria, is accused of leading an alleged terrorist organization known as Al-Zulfikar, named after his late father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Its activities began after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was toppled from office by a military coup in 1977 and hanged two years later on charges of ordering the assassination of a political opponent. Al-Zulfikar is accused of being involved in several terrorist incidents in Pakistan during the 11-year rule of former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
The family matriarch, Nusrat Bhutto, the mother of Murtaza and Benazir, announced her son's political ambitions on Aug. 7, after a trip to London to visit him.
"Murtaza will contest the elections, either from [Syria] or from Pakistan" she said. Under Pakistan's electoral laws, candidates do not have to be in the country to register or campaign. They are only required to come to the parliament to take an oath of office once they are elected.
Murtaza will contest parliamentary seats in at least nine districts, as allowed under Pakistani law, although he may only be elected in one. This would put him in a position to contest his sister's leadership of the PDA, although it is not clear whether he will challenge her ambition to be prime minister.
The elder Mrs. Bhutto denied that Murtaza's move would cause a split in the family. "Murtaza will not fight his sister [Benazir] nor her husband [Asif Ali Zardari]." And she tried to show the continuing strength of family ties: "Why should Asif go all over London looking for a birthday gift for Murtaza? He bought Murtaza an expensive antique silver shaving razor, while Benazir sent lots of books and videos for her brother," she said. Benazir has refused comment on the announcement.
It also remains unclear whether Murtaza would actually take the risk of facing criminal charges by returning to Pakistan. Among the most serious charges against him concerns the hijacking of a Pakistani airliner in 1980, which was then flown to Afghanistan. Two weeks later hostages on the plane were exchanged for PPP activists imprisoned under martial law. One passenger, a young Army captain, was assassinated. Al-Zulfikar activists claimed responsibility for the hijacking.
"The hijacking is just one of a number of serious crimes that are traced back to those terrorists" says a retired senior official, referring to Al-Zulfikar. "It's hard to imagine how all this can be forgotten."
Other officials contend that the announcement of Murtaza's return will put new pressures on the PDA and create an image of a split. "Even if Murtaza Bhutto stays away and contests elections only to show that he can count on popular support due to his family's legacy, that would all happen at a cost" says another senior official.
Many politicians are waiting to see if the announcement brings a rift in the Bhutto family. If such a division opens, that could be the most serious challenge to the authority of a family which for many Pakistanis has the stature of the Kennedys in America.
Some politicians are still hopeful that Benazir can count on the loyalty of her supporters to withstand the pressure. "Murtaza has lived in exile for so long, he has very little connection with ordinary Pakistanis; people here don't know an awful lot about him" says a foreign diplomat.
"Benazir has lived and struggled here for very long. Even if you don't support her, there's no way you can deny that she has faced some of the toughest challenges ... the hanging of her father and large-scale persecution of her supporters," he adds.