Pakistan’s supreme court on Wednesday nullified the election last year of a key opposition leader, sparking a wave of anti-government protests in the populous Punjab province and prompting worries over a new round of political instability.
Shortly after the verdict Shehbaz Sharif was removed as chief minister of Punjab, while his powers were transferred to the provincial government for an interim period until the appointment of a new chief minister.
The court declined to rule on a challenge to a ban on contesting elections imposed on former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif’s elder brother, who leads the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The decision effectively bars the elder Mr Sharif from contesting political office.
The verdict by the supreme court ends a difficult alliance between the PML-N and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The PPP is led by Asif Ali Zardari, Mrs Bhutto’s husband, who took charge after her assassination in December 2007.
The two parties promised after parliamentary elections a year ago to work together in the interest of democracy. However, they have become bitter foes in the past year.
“[President] Asif Ali Zardari had a hand in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, and today’s decision is also according to his wishes” said Akram Sheikh, the lawyer for Shehbaz Sharif.
Shortly after the judgement, supporters of the Sharif brothers came onto the streets in larger cities of Punjab, the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, which is home to about 60 per cent of the country’s population.
Protests took place in Lahore, the provincial capital, as well as in Rawalpindi - a suburb of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital - and the industrial cities of Faisalabad and Gujranwala.
While analysts warned that the court verdict could prompt continuing protests in the coming days, some said the protests were yet to show signs of turning into a sustained anti-government campaign.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when Pakistan’s main political parties need to unite, there is now a cause for new divisions” said Ikram Sehgal, a respected political analyst. “But it is difficult to say just yet if the reaction to this event will last for long”.
Western diplomats warned, however, that a rift between the PML-N and the PPP could undermined efforts to tackle major issues, especially Islamic militancy.
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