Pakistanis! Rise and revolt! Thus thundered Nawaz Sharif,the popular opposition leader and former prime minister of Pakistan,after he was disqualified from holding public office by the Supreme Court on February 25th. The court also turfed his younger brother,Shahbaz Sharif,out of Punjab’s provincial parliament and his post as its chief minister.
The court upheld a ban on the elder Sharif because he was convicted in 2000 of ordering the hijacking of a plane carrying the then army chief,General Pervez Musharraf,moments before his seizure of power the previous year. Under the constitution,convicts cannot contest elections. Therefore,having failed to launch an appeal against his conviction,as part of a deal he struck with Mr Musharraf at the time,to go into exile rather than languish in a Pakistani prison,Mr Sharif was disqualified.
His younger brother,Shahbaz,was also debarred by the court. So Punjab will now be run by its governor,Salman Taseer,until a coalition of the ruling People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q),once Mr Musharraf’s “king’s party”,proves it has a parliamentary majority there. Legally,the court’s rulings against the Sharifs seem sound. But they are nakedly political,making them hugely unpopular,and may prove destabilising.
The case follows a falling-out between Mr Sharif and President Asif Zardari of the PPP (husband of the late Benazir Bhutto) who joined forces last year to oust Mr Musharraf,then the president. They also set up coalition governments in Islamabad,Pakistan’s capital,and Punjab. Many doubted their two parties could ever work together,even in the national interest. So it proved. Defying Mr Zardari,Mr Sharif continued to insist on the reinstatement of Iftikhar Chaudhry,a deposed chief justice who has vowed to undo everything Mr Musharraf did,including his legal reprieve for Mr Zardari from corruption charges. Understandably,the president was against this. In an effort to circumvent his supposed ally,he therefore reinstated 56 other judges deposed by Mr Musharraf-but not their former leader,Mr Chaudhry.
Annoyed,Mr Sharif pulled out of the federal government several months ago. When the country’s lawyers recently announced plans for a giant rally in support of Mr Chaudhry on March 12th,he vowed to support them. Unnerved by the prospect of his coalition partner in Punjab sponsoring an agitation against the PPP-led federal government,he encouraged the Supreme Court to rule against Mr Sharif.
Mr Sharif’s response was blunt. “Zardari offered us a deal last month,” he declared shortly after the court’s ruling. “Ditch Iftikhar Chaudhry and support Hameed Dogar [the current chief justice,a Zardari favourite,and the court will absolve you.” But,said Mr Sharif self-righteously,”we refused to budge on principles.” He did not add the particular reason why he wants Mr Chaudhry back: to scrap changes Mr Musharraf made to the constitution,which at present forbid him from becoming prime minister for a third time.
Protests broke out across the main urban areas of Punjab following the judgment. Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and other opposition parties are planning to band together with the protesting lawyers to raise hell. The press is also sympathetic to Mr Sharif. So in the short term,domestic Pakistani politics are going to get even uglier. That is the last thing America wants as President Barack Obama gets ready to unfurl a regional strategy for Afghanistan. At its core will be the necessity for a political consensus in Pakistan. No wonder Mr Sharif’s first visitor after the court’s decision was Bryan Hunt,the American consul-general in Lahore.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009