Thousands across Pakistan have protested in support of the Sharifs
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad
The recent court decision in Pakistan to disqualify ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office is yet another troubling addition to the country's political turmoil. But who was behind it?
There are those who believe the federal government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), "influenced" the court decision with a view to capturing power in the country's most populous province, Punjab.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which held power in Punjab and whose two top leaders are the Sharif brothers, subscribes to this view, as do leaders of several smaller parties and civil society groups.
Shahbaz Sharif was chief minister in Punjab and was forced to quit. The Election Commission has notified that his seat in the provincial parliament is vacant.
Nawaz Sharif, who was prime minister twice during the 1990s, had earlier been declared ineligible by a lower court to contest the election that was held in February 2008. The latest ruling was to uphold that decision.
Raising the ante
But there are others who argue that the Sharif brothers could not have expected otherwise from a court which they did not consider legitimate and which they disdainfully declined to approach for their defence.
In fact, those who offered defence on behalf of the Sharif brothers included the PPP-led federal government, which was also a junior partner of the PML-N-led provincial government in Punjab.
The Sharif brothers feel the government is behind the ruling
Nevertheless, the battle lines seem to have been drawn between the country's two largest parties - reminiscent of the see-saw battles during the 1990s.
The Sharif brothers have raised the ante. Their Punjab legislators gatecrashed the parliament building on Wednesday to hold a session the federal government termed illegal.
Meanwhile, their supporters have taken to the streets in several cities in Punjab, setting bonfires to block traffic, burning vehicles and pulling down portraits of PPP leaders.
The PML-N leaders have urged the provincial administration not to carry out the orders of the government, which they say are unconstitutional.
The government has responded by extending federal rule to Punjab, and by revamping the entire administrative machinery of the province as well as its more sensitive districts so as to have its "loyal" officials at the helm if lawlessness spreads.
The immediate task before the government is to contain protest demonstrations by the PML-N which it may do through administrative measures as well as by mobilising PPP workers.
The ruling may spark confrontation between the two major parties
Over the next two weeks, it will also brace itself to face the proposed "long march" by the lawyers' community which is campaigning for the restoration of judges sacked by former military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, in November 2007.
The march is supported by the PML-N and several smaller political and civil society groups.
Observers feel that amid rising political temperatures, the march may well lead to violent confrontation and cause instability.
The problem is that this sudden political turmoil has hit the country at a time when it has reached a critical point in deciding how to overcome the problems of militancy and an impending economic meltdown.
For the first time in decades, the international community has acknowledged that prolonged domination of Pakistani politics by its security establishment has caused internal distortion in the system and promoted militancy.
The United States is now reworking its policy towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan region amid proposals of massive fund injections into Pakistan to strengthen its civilian political institutions.
This policy is likely to work best if Pakistan's domestic political situation remains stable and the civilian leadership is able to extend its control over all the major elements of the government.
With this court verdict, the Pakistani government has its work cut out.
It can either give reconciliation a chance by agreeing to erase the disqualification of the PML-N leaders through legislation in parliament and by allowing the party to carry on with the government in Punjab.
Or it can bid to govern in Punjab, win over the district governments in the province and use them and the police to thwart agitation by the PML-N and the lawyers.