Sweating slightly, the son of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto slipped into the basement of a swanky London hotel, took his place behind a bank of microphones and looked up. Cameras flashed. He barely blinked.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari took a deep breath before meeting the world's media Tuesday, coolly claiming his mother's legacy even as he acknowledged he has much to learn. The 19-year-old had not faced reporters since soon after Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party named him their symbolic leader last month — an act many suggested smacked of royalty.
Young Bhutto Zardari was ready for the succession question, stressing the party needed to show a united front to stem violence after his mother's assassination on Dec. 27. They chose him unanimously. Politics was in his blood.
"It wasn't handed on like some piece of family furniture," he said of the post. "(The party) asked me to do it and I did."
Little is known about Bhutto Zardari, who is now a kind of modern-day Pakistani dauphin, with his father acting as de facto regent. Even his Facebook page has proved unreliable, as detractors put up duplicate profiles, offering comments on everything from his purported views to the dark good looks he inherited from his mother.
Though born in Pakistan, Bhutto Zardari grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He acknowledges he has not spent much time in the country of 160 million, but claimed his mother involved him in everything she did.
Plans to finish Oxford studies
Deluged by requests for interviews, party officials organized the news conference at the elegant Gore Hotel in hopes that reporters would then just go away — or at least leave him alone long enough to finish his studies at Oxford University, where he is in his first year. The photo-opportunity-and-then-leave-him-alone idea has precedent: Buckingham Palace used it with Princes William and Harry.
"Although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn," Bhutto Zardari said. "However, my immediate priority is to return to Oxford to continue my studies. Unless I can finish my education and develop enough maturity, I recognize that I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena."
Pakistan's political world does not reward Bhuttos with long lives. Bhutto Zardari's grandfather was hanged two years after being deposed; one uncle was assassinated, another died a mysterious death in France. When asked if he feared for his life, Bhutto Zardari did not flinch.
"I fear more for my privacy," he said.
Bhutto Zardari's media debut was carried live on Pakistani TV networks and was the lead of news bulletins back home.
Ayaz Amir, a former Pakistani lawmaker and newspaper columnist was impressed, particularly with the teenager's concise answers.
"I guess verbosity comes with age and experience," he said.
Tauseef Ahmed, a journalism professor at Karachi's Federal Urdu University, said such confidence would not necessarily translate into success in the roughhouse world of Pakistani politics.
"Leading a huge political force like the Pakistan People's Party is a huge task," he said. "He'll need a lot of grooming by friends and party leaders, not just an Oxford education."
The PPP is Pakistan's largest opposition party, and is expected to do well in upcoming elections.
Its day-to-day operations have been taken on by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a former Cabinet minister accused of corruption during her time as prime minister, earning him the moniker "Mr. 10 percent."
Zardari accuses Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of responsibility for his wife's killing by failing to provide proper security for her. His son called for a U.N.-sponsored investigation of her death, saying that he does not trust officials in Pakistan.
"Already so much forensic evidence has been destroyed," he said.
'Bhutto' added to surname after assassination
Seen as a unifying force in his party, the teenager added "Bhutto" to his name after his mother was killed. The symbolic leadership role is seen as a pragmatic way to keep the party together until elections are over, said Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow in the Asia program at the Chatham House think tank.
"These sorts of symbols are not to be underestimated in a country like Pakistan ... where much of the population is poor and uneducated," she said.
The United States had hoped that Benazir Bhutto, a liberal Muslim popular in the West, would become prime minister again after the elections and enter into some form of power-sharing agreement with Musharraf — a duo seen as a potentially potent force against al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
But Bhutto Zardari might have other ideas. Asked about U.S. ties, he criticized America's support for Musharraf as a key ally in its "war on terror."
"I believe that the problem is that dictatorships feed extremism, and once the United States stops supporting dictators, we can successfully tackle the extremist problem as well," he said.