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Court bars Sharifs from polls
Nawaz held guilty of hijacking Mush plane; Punjab govt falls
Afzal Khan writes from Islamabad

In a verdict that evoked wide criticism and countrywide protests in Pakistan, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled former premier Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to contest for any public office. Besides, the apex court annulled last year’s election of Shahbaz Sharif as the chief minister of Punjab province.

Not only has the verdict added to the simmering political instability that was reflected by a sharp 290 points decline in Karachi Stock Exchange, but also has put Pakistan’s two main political parties, the PML-N and the PPP, on a collision course reminiscent of the 1990s.

The new twist in national landscape comes at a time when the country is beset with grave economic meltdown, insurgency and terrorism on western borders and post-Mumbai carnage tensions with India in the east. The lawyers, civil society activists and political opponents have planned a ‘long march’ next month, hence creating a volatile situation that many believe might derail the fragile democratic structure that emerged from February 18 elections last year.

Nawaz Sharif called a meeting of party leaders in Lahore soon after the announcement of the verdict. Rejecting the judgment, a PML-N spokesman said: “The court has not been legitimately constituted and comprised judges appointed by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf after dismantling the independent judiciary on November 3, 2007.”

In another statement, PML-N leaders put the blame squarely on Asif Zardari, saying “he had stalled restoration of independent judges for getting favourable decisions from a pliant court”. There was, however, no official reaction from the PPP government, but President Asif Zardari immediately began consultations to tackle the situation.

In Lahore, Shahbaz Sharif immediately left his office. Governor Salman Taseer assumed control of the provincial administration and quickly began shuffling key bureaucrats and police officials by removing Sharif loyalists.

Under the constitution, the Governor would continue to call the shots till he summons a session of the provincial assembly for ascertainment as to who would win the confidence of the majority to replace Shahbaz. The PML-N is single largest majority party in the assembly but is nine short of a clear majority. The PML-N can muster strength by aligning with former ruling party, the PML-Q. Both have been in covert contacts for past couple of months.

The likely PPP candidate to replace Shahbaz as chief minister could be Qasim Zia, who has been active in these contacts spearheaded by Governor Taseer from the PPP side and former chief minister Pervez Elahi of the PML-Q. There is also a concerted effort to foster rebellion within the PML-N.

In a cryptic comment, Pervez Elahi said it was premature to say anything on the brief judgment unless detailed verdict was pronounced. PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said: “There is nothing in the judgment to be happy about.”

The three-member bench passed a brief order rejecting petitions against high court verdict that had disqualified Nawaz Sharif in June last year and put a question mark on Shahbaz Sharif’s eligibility.

Attorney-General Latif Khosa appeared before the court on Wednesday and opposed the petitions saying the speaker or proposers and seconders of Sharifs could not contest the high court verdict. Both Sharif brothers refused to appear before the court saying they do not recognise its legitimacy.

Eminent lawyers Chaudhry Aizaz Ahsan said the verdict was a move to prevent lawyers’ long march, which is supported by Sharifs. He said Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was based on his conviction for hijacking Gen Pervez Musharraf’s plane in October 1999 that triggered the coup against him.

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