Nawaz Sharif (left) with brother Shahbaz. (File picture)
Islamabad, Feb. 25: Pakistans Supreme Court today barred former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections, plunging Pakistan towards a debilitating power struggle.
The court also nullified the election last year of Sharifs brother Shahbaz as Punjab chief minister, effectively dismissing him.
President Asif Ali Zardari imposed governors rule in Punjab province after Shahbazs disqualification.
The judges were hearing appeals against a ruling barring Sharif from contesting elections because of a prior criminal conviction. They were also considering allegations of irregularities in Shahbazs election to the provincial parliament.
Sharif reacted by accusing Zardari of influencing the Supreme Court to neutralise his most powerful rival. He also urged Pakistanis to join mass rallies next month by lawyers whose protests for an independent judiciary over the past two years helped drive former President Pervez Musharraf from power.
I want to tell the nation that it should stand up to this lawlessness, to this judgement, to this unconstitutional judgement, to this villainous act by the President of this country, Zardari, Sharif told a news conference in Lahore.
Earlier, a spokesperson for his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), said: This judgment has been given by a kangaroo court on the direction of Asif Ali Zardari…. We will fight our case in the court of the people of Pakistan.
Sharif never appeared before the Supreme Court, declining to recognise its authority on the grounds that its judges were Musharrafs appointees.
Supporters of the Sharif brothers protested across the country, blocking major roads in Islamabad and elsewhere, burning tyres and shouting slogans against Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Sharif said he opposed rioting, but added: If the people want to show their anger, who can stop them?
Zardaris spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
The PML(N) and the PPP had formed an alliance and Sharif played a key role in forcing Musharraf to step down as President. But the two parties parted ways after Zardari reneged on his commitment to restore judges whom Musharraf had sacked in 2007.
Sharif returned from exile in 2008 seeking to contest elections, but was disqualified by Lahore High Court because of a prior criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup in which he was overthrown by Musharraf.
The court today was ruling on an appeal — filed in June by the PPP, then an ally of Sharif — against that ruling. Various parties had brought a case alleging irregularities in Shahbazs campaign for office in Punjab.
The political impact of this decision will be extremely negative and if not handled properly, this can undermine prospects of democracy in Pakistan, Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore, said. This virtually amounts to excluding one of the major political parties from the political process.
The verdict came a week ahead of elections for the upper house and the Senate.
A large rally is lined up next month by lawyers. This sit-in will continue until the government restores the sacked judges including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, chief of the lawyers movement Ali Ahmad Kurd said.
Analysts say if Chaudhry were reinstated, he could prevent Musharraf getting indemnity for his actions in securing his re-election and declaring emergency rule in 2007.
That in turn could cast doubt on the validity of the protection Musharraf gave assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Zardari to return from self-imposed exile without fear of prosecution for corruption and other alleged crimes.
The decision against the Sharif brothers does not change the balance of power in Pakistans national parliament, but could trigger a destabilising power struggle in Punjab, its richest and most populous province.