The Supreme Court of Pakistan has ruled Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible for electoral participation.
As a result, Shahbaz Sharif is no longer chief minister of Punjab. The court decision is effectively a coup by the Peoples Party-led center against the government of the largest province, Punjab.
Sharif legal and political associates state they do not recognize the authority of the Supreme Court, which is led by a judge appointed by former President Pervez Musharraf after he sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and declared emergency rule.
Fire has ceased in Swat, but the war in Punjab, and perhaps even Islamabad, begins.
Politically, the Sharifs and their faction of the Muslim League (PML-N) — Pakistan’s second largest party — are isolated. Their major allies are those outside of parliament: the lawyers, Jamaat-e Islami, and Tehreek-e Insaaf.
And Pakistan effectively has a national unity government — sans the PML-N. The PPP-led coalition consists of the Awami National Party (ANP), Fazlur Rehman’s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Despite Shahbaz’s last ditch attempts toward rapproachment with the MQM, neither it nor any of the other coalition members will abandon the PPP. The ANP is focused on its government in the North-West Frontier Province. The MQM is uninterested in joining the opposition. And Fazlur Rehman and family are content with their Pajeros and farm houses. The fractured and discredited Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) could also join the central government. Shujaat Hussain, the head of the PML-Q, expressed his support for the court’s decision.
The PML-N is a few seats short of a majority in the Punjab Assembly. The PPP is positioned to form a government with the PML-Q there.
Zardari is politically secure. The Pakistani president has Musharraf-era constitutional powers (the hyperpresidency), a docile (though occassionally rebellious) prime minister, a healthy coalition in the center, a share in all provincial governments, a pliant Supreme Court, an army stuck in the barracks, and support of major Western governments. An influx of foreign aid could bolster his hold on power. Also, the PPP will likely be the largest party in the Senate after elections in March. Zardari — if he makes the right deals — could get a constitutional amendment passed that would fall short of restoring the presidency to its original nominal status. In short, Zardari could have his cake and eat it too.
However, there is a huge disparity between the Zardari’s political security and popular opinion toward him. Simply put, Zardari is hated inside Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. This has always been the case, except for the burst of sympathy after his wife’s murder. Public goodwill toward Zardari dissipated by the following summer when he violated a series of popular agreements with Nawaz. Subsequently, Zardari made a power grab and took the presidency.
Public opinion polls commissioned by the International Republican Institute indicate that Zardari — after a month as president — was as unpopular as Musharraf at his nadir. But it took Musharraf eight years to reach that point. Those polls also indicate Nawaz is Pakistan’s most popular politician.
So the big question are: How long can the contradictions between Zardari’s political strength and massive unpopularity last? And can Pakistan achieve political stability with its second largest party shut out of the corridors of power? We’ll get the first test in early March, when the PML-N and the lawyers go on their Long March.