[PML-N supporters protest in Islamabad, AFP]
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court nullified last year’s election of Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, and “also declined to rule on a challenge to an electoral ban on…former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, effectively maintaining a bar on him standing for election,” reported Dawn. GEO and AAJ News reported that Punjab governor Salman Taseer will assume executive control over Punjab province for the next two months.
The court’s decisions could subsequently mean a confrontation between the country’s two main political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party [led by President Asif Ali Zardari‘ and the Sharifs’ party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PML-N]. According to Reuters, the development “raised fears of a return to the political instability of the 1990s, a decade that ended in a military takeover.” The news agency cited political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, who stated, “The political impact of this decision will be extremely negative and if not handled properly this can undermine prospects of democracy in Pakistan…This virtually amounts to excluding one of the major political parties from the political process.” Zaffar Abbas, an editor at Dawn Newspaper echoed, “The political ramifications will be felt for many months to come. We may be looking for a very long, drawn-out battle between the government and the opposition forces led by Nawaz Sharif.”
Although the court made its ruling on the grounds that Nawaz had been convicted of a crime [in 1999], his lawyer immediately denounced the decision, “asserting it was a political decision ordered by President Asif Ali Zardari,” reported the NY Times. In a news conference following the court decisions, Nawaz Sharif told reporters, “This is an attack on the country and on the country’s constitution.” According to The News, the PML-N chief claimed that Zardari had “offered that we [Nawaz and Shahbaz] would be declared eligible by the Supreme Court if we accept the present judiciary including Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar.” He added, “I would have accepted the deal if power had been more dear to me than principles…we have embraced our disqualification but will not compromise on the national interest.” Dawn quoted Nawaz, who further asserted, “Our real judges are the masses, and not the PCO [Provisional Constitutional Order] judges. Have a referendum, I say! And only that way we can come to the real verdict – the verdict of the masses.”
Supporters of the PML-N took to the streets today to protest the decisions. According to AAJ Television, “An angry mob of some 800 people gathered on the main Mall Road in Lahore, blocking traffic by burning tires and chanting slogans against President Asif Ali Zardari. Witnesses said the crowd, including women supporters, attacked banners of the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party and tore down hoardings carrying pictures of the president, prime minister and the provincial governor [Taseer].” Similar protests took place in Multan and “more than a dozen cities and towns” in Punjab province, reported the news agency. The Sharif brothers, especially Shahbaz, are very popular in their provincial stronghold, and protests are likely to continue over the next few days.
Today’s development will also impact the country’s judiciary movement, and will likely galvanize support for both the movement and the Sharifs. Nawaz had pledged to join protesting lawyers [who are calling for the restoration of deposed judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry] in a long march from Lahore to Islamabad next month, and to take part in a planned sit-in in the capital. According to the NY Times, “Such a move by Mr. Sharif could raise political passions on the street. With Pakistanis suffering economically and security concerns paramount, Mr. Sharif had the potential of causing grief for the unpopular civilian government.”