Shahbaz Sharif addressed the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) rally in Lahore with an unequivocal demand for President Asif Ali Zardari to resign.
The Punjab chief minister said that corruption had reached unprecedented levels and the people of Pakistan were fed up – and that his party would not rest until its ongoing movement against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition government was complete.
Shahbaz was in a fiery mood as he rallied party workers. Evoking anti-government unrest in Egypt earlier this year, Shahbaz said that if Zardari failed to step down, his party would “make sure there is a Tahrir Square in every large city of the country.”
He even went as far as asking the crowd to start rationing their food, because, after Moharram, which ends in mid-December, his party would lead a nationwide protest and might have to “live on the roads.”
The PML-N, in power in Punjab but in opposition in the centre, called the protest to increase momentum for popular support for elections in 2013. Some reports have it that the party wants fresh elections before the Senate polls scheduled for March next year.
However, while PPP was the target, there are also suggestions that the rally was called suddenly to counter another rally that will be held in Lahore on Sunday by a party that is gaining tremendous traction in urban Punjab – Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf.
“Step down Zardari and hand over your money otherwise we will hang you here,” Shahbaz said, as chants of “Go Zardari, go corruption, go load shedding” echoed around the crowd.
In patches, there was a carnival feel to the protest. Workers danced to party songs, and toy lions – the PML-N’s symbol – were held aloft to cries of “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.”
The party’s senior leadership was in attendance, but only Shahbaz delivered a speech, addressing the gathering which stretched from General Post to Bhati Chowk, a distance of almost two kilometres.
According to party sources, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, drafted Shahbaz’s speech and encouraged the use of derogatory words against Zardari. Shahbaz was also planning on announcing a date for mass resignations from assemblies by his party members. At the eleventh hour, however, it was decided to leave this decision to Nawaz Sharif, who will outline his party’s policy on November 3 in Faisalabad.
Shahbaz laid on the accusations thick and fast against the president.
Shahbaz pointed to the “massive attendance” as proof that the nation is ready for a showdown and will only rest after “Ali Baba and his 40 thieves” have been deposed from power.
He also defended allegations of corruption from within his own provincial government: “I will not lie that corruption still exists, but I promise you that I have eliminated corruption from the top level of the Punjab government.”
Attendance figures disputed
The PML-N had tasked MNA Hamza Shahbaz Sharif with ensuring an attendance of at least 100,000 people at the rally. Despite his efforts over the past two weeks, which included addressing up to four gatherings per day, the estimated numbers were well short of this figure.
PML-N’s MPA Rana Arshad claimed that over 90,000 turned up, while journalists were divided, with figures ranging from 30,000 to 45,000.
There were also claims that the party had attracted far fewer locals than hoped for. Although the PML-N specifically targeted the citizens of Lahore, more than 50% of participants were from outside of the city, according to some intelligence agency reports.
Government officials from the city and Punjab districts also attended the rally – though some who spoke to The Express Tribune said that they essentially had to out of fear for their jobs.
Confusion among the crowd
The rally officially got going when Hamza Shahbaz arrived at the front at 5pm, three hours later than the scheduled time. After getting into a huge truck, however, Hamza failed to attract the majority of party workers, who were waiting for Shahbaz Sharif to lead the rally.
Shahbaz, though, had other ideas, and avoided the rally procession, preferring instead to arrive at his podium from back stage. Many at the rally were not even aware that Nawaz Sharif would not deliver a speech, as he was in Turkey.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2011.