Pakistan has again been plunged into political turmoil after the Supreme Court brought down the government of the country's largest province, headed by the brother of President Asif Ali Zardari's main rival. The court ruled the election last year of Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz, as chief minister of Punjab, was invalid. It also kept in place a ban that prevents twice-former prime minister Mr Sharif standing for office.
As two months of central government rule was imposed on Punjab, supporters of the Sharif brothers took to the streets of Lahore and other Punjab towns, burning tyres and chanting, and 5 per cent was wiped from the country's stock exchange. In Islamabad, young men fanned out on to one of the capital's main thoroughfares, blocking traffic for hours. Waving flags, they chanted anti-Zardari slogans, and panicked shopkeepers closed their businesses. More demonstrations are planned today.
The showdown between Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif had been brewing since last summer when the Pakistan Muslim League-N leader broke from the government after a dispute over the restoration of ousted judges. Increasingly critical of Mr Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Mr Sharif had been positioning himself as an alternative should the PPP government fall and had added his support to a forthcoming march of lawyers in protest at the failure to reinstate a sacked chief justice. The Sharifs' supporters said yesterday's decision, just a week before elections for the upper chamber of parliament and the Senate, was purely political and bore the hallmark of Mr Zardari's interference. "Asif Ali Zardari had a hand in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, and today's decision is also according to his wishes," said Akram Sheikh, a lawyer for Mr Sharif, after the verdict.
Later, at a press conference at his home on the outskirts of Lahore, Mr Sharif launched a full-frontal attack on Mr Zardari, saying: "I want to tell the nation that it should stand up to this lawlessness, to this judgment, to this unconstitutional judgment, to this villainous act by the President of this country, Zardari."
Reviving the poisonous rivalry between the two parties that dogged Pakistan during the 1990s, he referred to allegations of the President's corruption while his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. "Where are those millions of dollars?" he asked angrily. "The Pakistani people's money has not been returned."
With Pakistan confronted by a slew of pressing problems including the threat from Islamic militants, its diplomatic standoff with India in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks and an economy held afloat only by the intervention of the International Monetary Fund, many have wondered why Mr Zardari might have decided to confront the Sharifs.
The Sharifs will now throw their support behind the so-called Long March on 12 March, when thousands of lawyers are to demonstrate for the restoration of the ousted former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.