CHAKWAL, Pakistan (Reuters) - Electioneering in his home province of Punjab on Wednesday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif derided his old foe President Pervez Musharraf as a lackey of the United States.
“He does not care about Pakistan, he cares about America,” Sharif told a rally of about 5,000 people in Chakwal district, around 65 km southeast of the capital Islamabad.
Sharif was allowed to return from exile in November thanks to pressure on Musharraf from Saudi King Abdullah.
But he is barred from running in next Monday’s parliamentary election because of criminal convictions handed down after he was ousted by the military takeover that brought Musharraf to power in 1999.
The United States had supported the more pro-Western Benazir Bhutto’s return, while ignoring Sharif.
In the past, Sharif used his position in the middle ground to cultivate appeal among religious conservatives and has not spoken out as strongly as Bhutto against Islamist militants.
Bhutto’s assassination on Dec. 27 created a wave of sympathy that is expected to help her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerge as the largest party in the National Assembly after the vote.
It is not a presidential election, but the outcome could be vital to Musharraf’s future.
“What has he done in eight years?” Sharif asked before going on to slam Musharraf for ordering commandos storm Islamabad’s Red Mosque last July to crush a militant student movement.
“He has drowned the country in blood,” he said.
Sharif derided Musharraf for making Abdul Qadeer Khan, a scientist revered as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, make a humiliating, televised apology to the nation for selling nuclear know-how to other countries.
“Musharraf made the person who gave this nation the atomic bomb apologise on television,” Sharif said, touching a sore point with Pakistanis who believe Khan carried the can for other members of Pakistan’s establishment.
Sharif later addressed another gathering at Kahuta, a town where a uranium enrichment facility set up by Khan is located.
Sharif’s party is campaigning to restore judges removed by Musharraf in November, when he imposed emergency rule for six weeks to secure his own re-election.
It is expected to make gains at the expense of a pro-Musharraf party, but it cannot win.
The military coup split the Pakistan Muslim League, with one wing remaining loyal to Sharif and the rest lining up to prop up Musharraf. Sharif’s wing is known as the PML-N or Nawaz League.
The best Sharif can hope for is to ally with other parties to bring Musharraf down, or at least build a platform to attack his nemesis from opposition.
Sharif cannot be sure what the PPP will do if it is in a position to form an alliance with Musharraf’s political friends, but the two parties agitate in tandem if they both feel cheated by vote rigging.