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Pakistan faces instability as Sharifs disqualified
Wed Feb 25, 2009 9:46am EST
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By Kamran Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan plunged toward a debilitating power struggle on Wednesday as the Supreme Court destabilized a provincial government controlled by President Asif Ali Zardari's main rival, former premier Nawaz Sharif.
The court's decision to nullify the election last year of Nawaz's younger brother Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab's chief minister raised fears of a return to the political turbulence of the 1990s, a decade that ended in a military takeover.
It wiped five percent off share values on the Karachi stock exchange.
The court also effectively maintained a bar on two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif contesting polls.
Neither brother was in court, but Nawaz Sharif called for street agitation to protest a court decision he said was delivered on orders from Zardari.
"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," Sharif told a news conference in Lahore.
Pakistan can ill afford the political uncertainty.
The economy is only afloat thanks to an International Monetary Fund loan, Islamist militants threaten the security of the nuclear-armed state, the war on terrorism in unpopular, and anti-American sentiment is rife.
A showdown between Zardari and two-time prime minister Sharif has been brewing since they forced former army chief Pervez Musharraf to quit as president last August.
The court's decisions take place a week ahead of elections for the upper house and the Senate.
"The political impact of this decision will be extremely negative and if not handled properly this can undermine prospects of democracy in Pakistan," Hasan Askari Rizvi, political analyst based in Lahore, said.
"This virtually amounts to excluding one of the major political parties from the political process."
Sharif's supporters took to the streets in Lahore and other towns across Punjab, burning tires and chanting anti-government slogans, and his party has called for protests on Thursday.
"The people of Punjab are with them. It doesn't look good," said an ex-cabinet minister from a party in Zardari's coalition.
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