LAHORE, PAKISTAN – Political turmoil resurged in Pakistan Wednesday following a decision by the government to implement two months of direct rule in the powerful Punjab province, which was previously held by the opposition. (The Monitor reported on the Punjab's political importance last year.)
The governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) move to replace the religiously conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in Punjab followed a day of high drama in which the Supreme Court barred the brothers who lead PML-N, Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, from holding elected office.
Supporters saw the verdict as being politically motivated. PML-N lawyer Akram Shaikh claimed that it came on the orders of President Zardari (whose own outstanding court cases were shelved in a National Reconciliation Order in 2007).
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians – lost his appeal to overturn a conviction for hijacking a plane in 1999 that was carrying then-army chief Pervez Musharraf just before he ousted Mr. Sharif in a coup. Shahbaz Sharif failed to overturn his conviction for defaulting on a loan, a criminal offence in Pakistan.
The rulings sparked widespread protests and strikes throughout Punjab, and the Karachi stock exchange lost 5 percent of its value. Greater street agitation is expected Thursday.
Politically, Mr. Zardari remains secure in the medium term because the Sharifs’ political allies remain outside parliament. But Zardari is a deeply unpopular figure because of lingering corruption allegations and pro-West leanings.
Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, has managed to bolster his popularity over the past year. He’s won support for his continued backing of an independent judiciary, an issue which Zardari pledged to support but hasn’t. (Read about their parties’ fallout over this issue last year.)
At a time of grave economic crisis and a rising militancy, the government can ill-afford further destabilization.