Pakistan has been plunged into a fresh phase of political instability after the country's two main opposition leaders were barred from elected office. The controversial ruling from the Supreme Court has sparked violent and angry protests against the government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Punjab, the largest and wealthiest province of the country. Just as Pakistan's civilian leadership most needs to unite to tame militants, the country's two main political parties have revived their poisonous rivalry, setting off on a potentially destructive confrontation with each other.
In a long-awaited ruling, Pakistan's Supreme Court declared on Wednesday that neither former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab, can stand for elections. The siblings are the leaders of the country's second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). As a result, Nawaz Sharif's ambition of returning to the position of Prime Minister for a historic third time in a future election has been thwarted. More immediately, Shahbaz Sharif has been dislodged from his position as Chief Minister of Punjab, the elected head of the provincial government. The governor of Punjab a loyalist of Zardari has imposed emergency powers in the province, the one area the ruling coalition did not control. Zardari is head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the largest political organization in the country that was once led by his late wife Benazir Bhutto.
Moments after the decision was announced, angry mobs from the Sharifs' Punjabi power base took to the streets in protest. In Islamabad (a federal territory located within the boundaries of Punjab), young men waving the PML-N's green flags and chanting anti-Zardari slogans seized control of two of the capital's main thoroughfares. Panicked shopkeepers in the bustling Aabpara market swiftly pulled down their shutters and fled the area. The youths torched car tires and attacked cars bearing government license plates. Parts of Lahore, the second largest city and capital of Punjab, were brought to a standstill for hours as Sharif supporters gathered outside the governor's mansion to shout defiant slogans and tear down People's Party posters. The two main shopping areas, Liberty and Anarkali, were shut down, as were a number of roads and bridges. Gunfire has been heard in parts of Rawalpindi, where some Sharif supporters have trashed posters commemorating Bhutto. Meanwhile, the country's stock exchange dipped 5% at the prospect of deepening political instability. More demonstrations are planned for Thursday.
Zardari's government insists that it did not lean on the judges to rule against his rivals. "The federal government has nothing to do with the Supreme Court's decision, but we commiserate," says Farahnaz Ispahani, a presidential spokeswoman. "This is not what we sought from our policy of reconciliation." The charges against the Sharifs, she adds, were not introduced by the present government but by former President Pervez Musharraf, after he toppled Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999. (One of the charges that led to Sharif's disqualification was his alleged role in the 1999 hijacking of a plane bearing Musharraf, then head of the army and increasingly a rival for power.) But the Sharifs and their lawyers allege that Zardari played a direct role. "Asif Ali Zardari had a hand in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, and today's decision is also according to his wishes," Akram Sheikh, a lawyer for the Sharifs, told reporters outside the court. (See pictures of the rise and fall of Musharraf.)
At a hastily arranged press conference at his sprawling home on the outskirts of Lahore, Nawaz Sharif raised the political temperature with a fiery attack on Zardari. "The nation should rise against this unconstitutional decision and this villainous act of Zardari," he said, his face swollen with rage. In a sign that the country was returning to the politics of the 1990s a period when four civilian governments collapsed in the span of a decade the former Prime Minister resurrected accusations of corruption. "Where are those millions of dollars?" Sharif asked in reference to allegations that Zardari salted away the spoils of power during the two times his late wife was in office. "The Pakistani people's money has not been returned." Zardari was twice imprisoned on corruption charges by Sharif's governments and has spent a total of 11½ years behind bars. He has always denied the charges and received amnesty for them from Musharraf before Bhutto's ill-fated return to Pakistan in 2007.