Former premier Nawaz Sharif has been able to prove with his homecoming rally that his PML-N party remains a popular force in the Punjab, the political heartland of Pakistan, despite a poor turnout of supporters in some parts.
At every stop he made, Sharif challenged the judgment handed down by the judiciary to disqualify him for being “dishonest” in declaring his assets and argued that his ouster had more to do with going against the powerful establishment and less with corruption or rule of law.
Indirectly, Sharif has attacked the military high command, which he suspects of having a hand in his ouster. In his speeches, time and again Sharif has targeted military dictators and their role in the subversion of democracy in Pakistan.
This has made the military uncomfortable. Passing through Jhelum and Kharian, from where a large percentage of soldiers and officers of the Pakistan Army hail, the former prime minister was at his most bitter.
Not only did Sharif attack former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who ousted him in a coup in 1999, and other generals, but he also questioned the military’s role in the running of Pakistan.
That these speeches did not go down well was evident from the appearance soon after of anti-Sharif posters in military-dominated towns.
Thousands of supporters of Nawaz Sharif at a rally in Muridke on August 12, 2017.
It is after a long time that a popularly elected leader has taken on either the judiciary or the military in this manner. Sadly, as Sharif leads the charge, other parties – most notably the opposition Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto – have played it safe by questioning the basis of Sharif’s speeches.
Some politicians, like former minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, who is known to be close to the military, have asked the judiciary to take note of what he called “contempt being committed” by Sharif. They are hoping for another round of confrontation between Sharif and the powers that be.
Political analysts say Sharif is setting the agenda for the next general election. The former premier seems to be working on rallying his supporters to challenge both the judiciary and indirectly the military high command. This is a tall order and in the past, Sharif has failed to bring the army under his control.
The message Sharif is giving is that this has boiled down to a tussle between democracy and dictatorship – that elected governments must be removed through elections and not by the military or through judicial coups.
The only problem in this strategy is Sharif himself. His family’s reputation has been tarnished by the Panama Papers scandal and hoping for the masses to support a democratically elected, albeit corrupt, politician against the all-powerful military and judiciary seems a far cry at this stage.
But it is the response he gets from the man on the street over the next few days which will determine what the mood of the people is and what can be expected in the election next year.