With no alternative vision for governance and two insurgencies, Pakistanis must support Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has started a rally from the capital Islamabad to Lahore, in a defiant show of political strength after the Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office for omissions in a parliamentary wealth declaration.
Thousands of Sharif’s supporters gathered in Islamabad on Wednesday to accompany him on the 370km journey, bringing the commercial heart of the capital to a virtual standstill.
Sharif was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court on July 28, on the grounds that he did not declare a salary which he says he never took from a company in the United Arab Emirates.
Sharif resigned swiftly after the Supreme Court decision, and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a staunch party loyalist, was appointed as his replacement last week.
“[I was disqualified because] my son has a company that I never took a salary from,” a defiant Sharif said on the eve of his planned “caravan” to Lahore. “When I never took it, what would I declare?”
The disqualified prime minister said that while he respects the court’s decision, he would be challenging it in a review petition to be filed shortly.
The court also ordered Pakistan’s anti-corruption watchdog to register cases against Sharif, three of his children and several aides, including Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.
“Everyone should be held accountable … but if they wanted to dismiss him, it should have been for proven corruption, not for an unpaid salary,” said Arsalan Mazhar, 24, a supporter who was waving a stuffed tiger, the symbol of Sharif’s PML-N party, at the rally in Islamabad.
Sharif vowed to push ahead with the rally, which is expected to take roughly two days to reach his hometown of Lahore along Pakistan’s historic Grand Trunk Road, despite security concerns.
On Monday, dozens of people were wounded when a truck exploded near a Lahore market which falls along the planned route for Sharif’s rally, rescue officials told Al Jazeera.
“I am going to my home. I’ve been sent home [by the courts], so am I now not supposed to [actually] go home?” Sharif asked, in response to a question about security concerns.
“Many days have passed now. A new government has been formed; a new prime minister has come, a new cabinet has been made. So now I think I should go home.”
Supporters at the commencement of the former prime minister’s journey in Islamabad waved flags and danced to songs proclaiming Sharif to be “the beat of our hearts”.
Several pick-up trucks were fitted with speakers to raise the spirits of party supporters, proclaiming Sharif to be “the bringer of Pakistan’s atom bomb”.
Sharif was prime minister when Pakistan first publicly tested a nuclear weapon in 1999. He was overthrown soon after in a military coup led by then army chief Pervez Musharraf, who ruled Pakistan for the following nine years.
No democratically elected civilian prime minister in Pakistan has completed a full term in office.
Speaking on the eve of his departure, Sharif said that Pakistan had only ever seen “a crippled democracy”.
“Will the nation’s mandate ever be respected?” he asked.
“Or will it continue to be dishonoured and ignored? Will we ever have the rule of law in this country? Will we have the rule of the people’s mandate?”
Sharif’s supporters echoed those views, saying they were joining him in order to support democracy.
His caravan will make its way through his party’s political heartland in Punjab province, stopping often for public gatherings and rallies over its planned two-day journey.
“We will walk to Lahore if we have to,” said Nazeer Hussain, 60, a PML-N party worker who was wearing a shirt imprinted with Sharif’s face and a hat bearing his election symbol of a tiger.
To join the caravan, Hussain rented a car that cost him Rs 20,000 ($190), roughly half his monthly income as a shopkeeper in the city of Muzaffarabad, 90km north of Islamabad.
Not everyone who braved the sweltering heat at the rally in Islamabad supported Sharif, however.
“I’m selling sunglasses here because wearing these makes you look like a big leader or a politician, and people seem to like that,” said Abrar Hussain, 45.
Abrar voted for Sharif in the last election but said he was left dismayed by persistently high unemployment during Sharif’s tenure.
Pakistan’s unemployment rate was 5.87 in 2016, according to the World Bank.
Pakistan’s next parliamentary election is due in mid-2018, and Hussain said he would be voting for the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
“They steal money, too, but at least there is a chance that I might get a job.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.