Lahore: Back in Pakistan from exile, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was due to file nomination papers on Monday for polls in January he may not take part in unless President Pervez Musharraf ends emergency rule.
Sharif, ousted by General Pervez Musharraf eight years ago, returned from exile on Sunday, saying he wanted to help end “dictatorship” in the country that army chief and US ally Musharraf has been ruling under emergency powers since 3 November.
“General Musharraf has brought this country to the verge of disaster,” Sharif told supporters early on Monday during a stop on his slow journey into Lahore from the city’s airport where he landed on a flight from Saudi Arabia.
“We have to save this country. We have to unite and get rid of dictatorship,” he said by megaphone from the back of a truck.
Western governments fear Musharraf’s emergency rule and stifling democracy in Pakistan could be to the advantage of Islamist militants threatening the nuclear-armed nation.
Police detained thousands of Sharif’s supporters prior to his arrival, according to party loyalists, but a throng of well-wishers clapped and danced as Sharif, dressed in traditional white shalwar kameez and black waistcoat, emerged from the airport terminal.
Thousands more lined the road from the airport, cheering and beating drums to welcome Sharif, who arrived with his wife Kulsoom and politician brother Shahbaz Sharif, a fellow exile, on an aircraft provided by the Saudi monarch.
Mounting insecurity in Pakistan was underscored by two suicide attacks in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, on Saturday. The attacks killed at least 15 people, military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said on Sunday, although some media reported it was more than 30.
Suicide bombers attacked another former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade when Musharraf allowed her to return last month in the hope that she would become an ally. At least 139 people were killed.
Unpopular and politically isolated, Musharraf now has to contend with two rivals he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.
“HANG THEIR HEADS”
This was Sharif’s second attempt at returning from exile after a first in September ended with his deportation.
But the political atmosphere has changed radically since then with Musharraf’s imposition of an emergency on 3 November and the apparent breakdown of efforts to forge cooperation between Musharraf and Bhutto.
Musharraf, who will need support from a parliament after the general election, went to meet Saudi Arabian leaders last week.
Analysts speculated he wanted to persuade Saudi’s King Abdullah to keep Sharif there longer but reluctantly agreed to let him back. Newspapers said Musharraf’s envoys later proposed cooperation with Sharif.
But Sharif, who will lead his party in the election if he decides to take part, denied he had done a deal with Musharraf.
He said an election boycott was an option but he would register his nomination for the poll by Monday’s deadline.
“We’ll make those politicians who supported dictatorship hang their heads,” he said.
Bhutto, who leads the other main opposition party, welcomed Sharif’s return as she filed her nomination papers in Sindh province.
Sheikh Mohammad Ali, 60, a labourer with a Sharif party flag at an intersection, waiting to welcome Sharif home said Musharraf had to go: “We don’t like this dictator. During his rule there’s been nothing but poverty, unemployment and insecurity.”
Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Leaders of the ruling PML faction fear many of their party may now defect back to Sharif.
The general secured his own second five-year term by using emergency powers to purge Supreme Court judges who might have annulled his re-election by parliament last month. He is expected to quit as army chief and take his oath as a civilian soon.
Sharif called for the dismissed judges to be reinstated and the constitution restored.