ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Thousands of people attended a rally and procession in support of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday as he embarks on a show of political power following a Supreme Court decision to disqualify him from office over undeclared assets.
Sharif launched the so-called “caravan” procession from Islamabad to his eastern hometown of Lahore, despite the concerns of advisers about security.
After being driven 12 hours surrounded by supporters showering his vehicle with rose petals from capital Islamabad to the neighboring city of Rawalpindi, normally a 30 minute drive, Sharif addressed the crowd shortly after midnight.
“One court has given its decision, now this court will make a decision, the court of the people of Pakistan,” Sharif said, asking the crowd if they accept the Supreme Court’s decision, a question that elicited a loud “No” from his supporters.
“Nawaz Sharif is still our prime minister,” said worker Niaz Ahmad, who wore a lion look-alike costume and chanted, “Lion, Lion!” referring to the election symbol of Sharif’s political party.
The event remained largely peaceful, though Sharif’s supporters assaulted the crew of two local TV stations that had been critical of him during the court proceedings, police official Hafeez Khan said.
“No prime minister has ever seen out the full term of his government,” Sharif said.
He then asked the crowd: “Were these prime ministers not the people’s choice? When will the people’s mandate be respected?” adding that this joke has been repeated in Pakistan for 70 years.
Pakistan will celebrate 70 years of independence from British rule on August 14 but the country has never had a full term prime minister with numerous governments being interrupted by either military coups, judicial disqualification, or presidential decree.
Sharif, 67, resigned during his third stint as prime minister after the Supreme Court ruled on July 28 that he should be disqualified and ordered a criminal probe into his family over allegations stemming from the “Panama Papers” leaks of international offshore companies.
Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a close Sharif ally, said the former leader was alert to security threats.
“The bigger a leader is, the bigger the threat is,” Abbasi told domestic Geo TV.
Sharif was seen off in Islamabad by Abbasi, the new cabinet and other party officials, his political adviser Asif Kirmani said.
A huge crowd gathered for his journey along the Grand Trunk Road bridging the 380 km (237 miles) between Islamabad and Lahore.
Sharif, in recent meetings with party leaders, lawyers and the media, has expressed his displeasure over the court ruling.
He has said no corruption charges had been proved, and it was unfair to disqualify him on the grounds of not having declared a salary from his son’s Dubai-based company among a list of assets submitted ahead of the 2013 elections that brought him to power.
Sharif’s governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, which has a solid majority in parliament, elected Abbasi as his replacement within four days of the court decision.
Party leaders have recently suggested that Abbasi will hold office until elections due next year, a reversal of earlier indications that Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz, would take over.
Shahbaz is now likely to replace his brother as party chief because Pakistani law bars convicted or disqualified persons from leading a political party.
Additional reporting by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Bolton