Pakistan has been plunged back into political crisis after its Supreme Court banned its former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from holding political office.
The court also ousted Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League from power in Punjab province, where his brother Shahbaz was chief minister.
The ruling upheld a move by the country’s election commission to ban the Sharif brothers from contesting elections because of past criminal convictions. But Mr Sharif accused President Asif Ali Zardari of orchestrating the ruling.
The ban on Shahbaz Sharif led to the immediate collapse of the state government in Punbjab. President Zardari immediately appointed Punjab’s governor Salaman Taseer – a long-term opponent of the Sharif brothers – to run the provincial government as chief executive for the next two months pending the formation of a new administration.
Mr Zardari is also expected to try to persuade some of Nawaz Sharif’s opposition assembly members to desert him and join a new coalition led by the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
Shares in Islamabad plunged five per cent amid fears of a return to the political instability of the 1990s when Mr Nawaz’s PML party and the PPP of Mr Zardari’s assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto persecuted each other and their supporters.
Those fears were heightened by a series of large protests in Lahore and other cities in Punjab, and also by calls by Mr Sharif for mass demonstrations to unite the opposition towards the ban.
Mr Sharif alleged that Mr Zardari had prompted the verdict because he and his brother had rejected a “business deal” under which the Sharif brothers would be ruled eligible to hold political office if they agreed to extend the term of the country’s chief justice, Abdul Hamid Dogar.
Mr Sharif and his brother have consistently campaigned for Chief Justice Dogar to be sacked and for his predecessor, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was ousted by the former president Pervez Musharraf when he imposed emergency rule in 2007, to be reinstated.
Mr Zardari is said to fear that if he reinstated Mr Chaudhry, the independent-minded former chief justice might strike down Mr Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance, under which corruption charges against Mr Zardari were dropped and he was allowed to hold office.
Mr Zardari denies all wrongdoing.
Nawaz Sharif claimed: “Zardari invited him [Shahbaz Sharif] for lunch and said he was offering him a business deal under which he could remain the chief minister in return for our help in securing an extension for Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Dogar.
“When Shahbaz promptly shot down the suggestion, Zardari told him: ‘I am offering you a business deal, a trade off’. We decided to put the interests of Pakistan first’.”
He called for Pakistanis to join planned protests led by the country’s lawyers’ movement campaigning for the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf to be reinstated.
“The nation should rise against this unconstitutional decision and this nefarious act of Zardari. He opposed rioting, he said, but warned:”If the people want to show their anger, who can stop them?”
Mr Sharif is regarded as Pakistan’s most popular politician and his stock has risen since last year’s elections when his PML defied expectations to win comfortably in Punjab. He remains influential and is regularly courted by visiting US officials who believe he could yet return to power.