Sharif brothers barred from polls, accuse Zardari of dirty tricks (Roundup)

February 25th, 2009 - 11:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Nawaz SharifIslamabad, Feb 25 (IANS) Pakistan teetered on the brink of political crisis Wednesday after the Supreme Court barred former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from contesting the polls and also declared null and void the election of his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The verdict led to the fall of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in the country’s most politically consequential province.

Nawaz Sharif immediately struck back, accusing President Asif Ali Zardari of offering him and his brother a “business deal” in return for letting the duo off in the two cases against them.

Protests broke out all over Pakistan, particularly in Punjab, the power base of the PML-N. In a domino effect, the decision also led to the Karachi Stock Exchange index falling by 300 points.

With Shahbaz Sharif out of the chief minister’s chair, governor’s rule was imposed in the province. The reins of governance have been handed to Governor Salman Taseer, a Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) man considered to be close to President Asif Ali Zardari.

The Supreme Court ruling came through a brief verbal order issued by a three-judge bench headed by Justice Musa Leghari. It is yet to issue a detailed order.

Nawaz Sharif did not take the ruling lying down.

“An emissary came to me and asked me to stop pushing for the reinstatement of the judges (then president Pervez Musharraf had sacked after imposing an emergency in November 2007),” he said at a press conference here soon after the court verdict.

“In the case of Shahbaz, Zardari invited him for lunch and said he was offering him a business deal under which he could remain the chief minister in return for our (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s) help in securing an extension for (Supreme Court) Chief Justice (Abdul Hameed) Dogar,” Sharif said.

“When Shabaz promptly shot down the suggestion, Zardari told him: ‘I am offering you a business deal, a trade off’,” Sharif said.

“We decided to put the interests of Pakistan first,” the former prime minister declared, explaining why both suggestions had been rejected.

The Supreme Court bench was hearing petitions challenging the Lahore High Court’s order disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, chief of the PML-N, from contesting elections.

The apex court upheld the June 2008 Lahore High Court decision to bar Sharif from contesting by-elections for the National Assembly because of his conviction in 1999 in a case related to the hijacking of a plane carrying then army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf. The hijacking drama had led to the ouster of the Sharif government in 1999.

Shahbaz Sharif was convicted in cases related to tax evasion and loan default. The Lahore High Court had last year asked the Election Commission to review his eligibility.

PML-N spokesperson Siddique-ul-Farooq told reporters: “We do not recognise these courts as genuine and constitutional. These are kangaroo courts and we care little for this verdict… It has no value.”

Another party leader Farooq Rashid said the decision was expected and “bad for the country”.

A major reshuffle in the Punjab bureaucracy is expected soon with officials posted by the Sharif government likely to be removed.

Akram Sheikh, the lead lawyer representing the Sharifs, accused Zardari of being the architect of the decision.

“Asif Ali Zardari had a hand in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and today’s decision is also according to his wishes,” he told reporters after the verdict.

The Sharif brothers, who had refused to appear before the court while the case was being heard, are unlikely to seek a review of the decision, sources close to them said.

Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the PML-N, which had formed a coalition government after the February 2008 elections, had agreed to restore the Supreme Court bench Musharraf had sacked.

The PPP later reneged, leading to the PML-N walking out of the coalition.

Relations between the two have been frosty since then, with the situation exacerbating after Salman Taseer, who is considered close to Zardari, was appointed the Punjab governor.

The PML-N viewed this as a move to de-stabilise Shahbaz Sharif’s government.

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