In a move that threatens to add to the political instability in Pakistan, the Supreme Court has effectively barred two of the country's most influential politicians from competing in elections or holding public office.
As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the country's second-largest parliamentary party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Group (PML-N), will not be allowed to contest elections.
The election of his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to the legislature in Punjab Province was canceled, meaning he will lose his post atop the country's most populous province as well.
Pakistan's civilian government, already fighting a stubborn Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency on its western borders, now faces the possibility of further instability in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
Analysts in Pakistan suggest the move is likely to pitch the country's two largest political parties against each other, and Pakistan's stock market lost 5 percent of its value in the hours after the news as investors traded on fears of more political chaos.
Ayaz Amir, a leading Pakistani columnist who represents the PML-N in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament, calls the move a "damaging blow" to the hopes of a stable and effective government.
"It...plunges Pakistan into a fresh round of turbulence and instability, and where it might end and where it might lead, it's very, very hard to say," Amir says. "But everything goes up in smoke from this moment on."
He predicts instability in the short term, along with "a fresh round of political jockeying in the Punjab in the country's largest province."
Such maneuvering "will have its effects and repercussions on the central government -- the federal government," Amir says. "Pakistan already was suffering from what you can call weak governance. It faces an enormous array of challenges as far as the fighting in the tribal areas and Swat is concerned."
Tensions between the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the PML-N have been brewing for some time. Though the two main political parties and former archrivals were pushed closer during the former President General Pervez Musharraf's nine-year military rule, their coalition proved short-lived once Musharraf resigned. Sharif's party later dropped out of the unity government with the PPP after public disagreements over the restoration of judges whom Musharraf had previously dismissed.
But analysts maintain that the PML-N's decision was driven by political considerations. Despite their party coming in second in last year's elections, both Sharif brothers were barred from contesting the polls and thus were unable to hold positions of high office. Their first priority was to smooth out such legal complications.
Fuel On The Fire
A court acquitted Shahbaz Sharif in a murder case that cleared his way to run in by-elections and eventually to become the chief executive of the Punjab Province, home to nearly half of Pakistan's 165 million people.
But his elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, was not allowed to run in the February 2008 general elections because he had been convicted for the 1999 hijacking of then-army chief Musharraf's aircraft just before his bloodless coup against Sharif.
Amir says the latest court decision angered Sharif's supporters, leading them to break into small spontaneous protests in the country's main cities on February 25. PML-N spokesman Siddiqul Farooq accused President Asif Ali Zardari of "directing" the court's decision.
"Our leader, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, on the 21st of this month, while addressing our party's general council, has said that Asif Ali Zardari is conspiring to get Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif disqualified from these kangaroo courts, and that has been proved," Farooq said.
The PML-N has already announced plans to participate in a "long march" and then stage a sit-in protest. The protest will begin from Punjab's capital and Sharif stronghold of Lahore and arrive in the capital, Islamabad, in mid-March. It is part of an effort, known as the "lawyers movement," that demands the reinstatement of the country's former chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was sacked by President Musharraf in November 2007.
Amir says PML-N supporters will now be keener on joining the lawyers' protest. "This decision is grist to the mills of the lawyers movement and it will become stronger, and what might have been easily contained before now assumes slightly larger dimensions," Amir says. "How big those dimensions are, how big the lawyers' long march turns out to be, it's a bit early to say. But the lawyers movement has received a fillip and a boost."
Reports from Pakistan indicate that the PPP-appointed governor of Punjab Province has assumed all the powers of the provincial chief executive, or chief minister, in the wake of the court decision. Those reports suggest that the appointee, Salman Taseer, is likely to ask the provincial legislature to elect a new chief minister soon.
Leaders of the PML-N, however, are holding an extraordinary session in Lahore to discuss the crisis. Analysts predict that they will be tempted to work out a strategy on how to use the lawyers' protest movement to unseat or weaken the PPP-led government in Islamabad.