NAUDERO, Pakistan — The party of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto tapped her 19-year-old son Sunday as its new chairman, preserving one of Asia's most enduring political dynasties, but it turned real power over to her husband, a one-time businessman dogged by corruption allegations.
The Pakistan Peoples Party also announced that it would contest national parliamentary elections called for Jan. 8. The elections are intended to transition the Islamic insurgency-torn nuclear power from more than eight years of military rule to a civilian democratic government.
Senior leaders of the party, the nation's largest opposition group, made the decisions two days after Bhutto's funeral in an apparent bid to capitalize on the nationwide outpouring of sympathy ignited by her assassination. Many Pakistanis blame U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as army chief earlier this month, for her murder.
"My mother always said that democracy is the best revenge," declared Bhutto's son, Bilawal, during a news conference at the family's ancestral home in rural Sindh Province.
The PPP's announcement that it would participate in the election prompted the country's other major opposition group, the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to reverse its earlier decision to boycott the contests.
But widespread violence triggered by Bhutto's assassination Thursday, including attacks on election commission offices, raised the possibility that the elections may be postponed. The federal Election Commission was expected to announce on Monday whether the voting would go ahead.
Much of Pakistan remained paralyzed on the third day of a strike called to protest the slaying of Bhutto, 54, in a gun-and-bomb attack, with businesses closed, public transportation stalled and the country's main port of Karachi shut. But with troops and paramilitary forces called out to reinforce police, there were no reports of serious unrest, which has claimed at least 44 lives around the impoverished country of 165 million.
Bhutto's death and the wave of arson, shootings and clashes between protesters and security forces, have shaken a country already convulsed by ethnic and religious tensions, widespread demands for Musharraf's ouster and a growing insurgency based in northwestern tribal regions by Islamic militants allied with al Qaida and the Taliban.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari flanked by his father, Arif Ali Zardari, and other senior party officials, accepted the party's chairmanship in a short statement read in a clipped British accent. Because he spent most of his life in exile abroad with his mother, he is believed to speak little or no Urdu, Pakistan's national language.
The shy 19-year-old said he would be resuming his studies as a first-year student at Britain's prestigious Oxford University, which his mother also attended, before taking over the top slot of the party founded by his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
"The party's long and historic struggle with democracy will continue with renewed vigor," he declared.
In the meantime, Zardari, who was named co-chairman, will preside over the organization's day-to-day affairs. He quickly took control of the news conference, at one point stopping reporters from questioning his son, saying Bilawal was at "a tender age."
Party officials said that Bhutto named Zardari as her sole successor in a will read by Bilawal during a four-hour central executive committee session. But Zardari decided to give the top post to his son, and during the news conference indicated that party vice chairman, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, would be the candidate for prime minister if the party wins next month's elections.
Political analysts said that the decision reflected concerns that the country's only real national party would collapse unless it was headed by a Bhutto. Bilawal had used his father's last name until Saturday, when he changed it to Bhutto-Zardari.
"Mr. Zardari is not liked within the PPP," said Ahmed Quraishi, a political commentator.
Zardari also carries an unsavory reputation.
During the two periods in which Bhutto served as prime minister, the former small-time businessman came to be known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly accepting kickbacks on government contracts. He was jailed for eight years on charges ranging from murder to corruption, but nothing was ever proved and he was released in 2004.
Zardari, who insists the accusations were false and politically motivated, reportedly still faces money-laundering charges in Switzerland.
"We don't accept Zadari," said a local PPP leader in the party's stronghold of Lyari, a vast slum-like warren of ragged apartment blocks and trash-strewn allies in Karachi, as a knot of supporters nodded in agreement. "The party workers only like the Bhutto family."
The local leader asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution for his comments.
Zardari said the party would push for a U.N. investigation into Bhutto's assassination along the lines of a probe into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
The demand comes amid conflicting accounts by the Musharraf government of how Bhutto died that have helped stoke a widespread impression of official complicity.
The government first said she was shot as she stood in the sun-roof of her armored vehicle, waving to crowds after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi, before a suicide bomber detonated his explosives. It blamed Islamic militants linked to al Qaida and the Taliban.
The Interior Ministry then contended that Bhutto died after she cracked her skull on the sun-roof latch as she dropped into the vehicle.
Zardari, who referred to Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q as the "killer league," insisted that she was shot, and confirmed reports that he had prohibited a post-mortem.
"We know what the wound is, we know how it was done," he contended. "We don't need post mortems to prove the death. Therefore I refuse to give them the last remains, because they belong to God and the people of Pakistan. I buried her with honor. I was not going to give it to them."
(Shah reported from Naudero, Landay from Karachi.)