Pakistan lifts election ban on opposition leader

Pakistan’s top court Tuesday lifted an election ban on opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, giving the former prime minister a major political boost by allowing him to run for office.

The ruling means Sharif, the country’s most popular politician according to polls, is free to contest national elections in 2013 and become elected to parliament in a by-election. He had been blocked because of a criminal conviction in 2000 he has insisted was politically motivated.

By allowing Sharif to seek political power through democratic means, it also removes a source of uncertainty and possible political conflict in the country as it battles Taliban insurgents spreading out across the nuclear-armed country from the lawless northeast.

“I would like to salute the people of Pakistan again because they, with great effort and struggle, fought for the independence of the judiciary,” Sharif told reporters minutes after the Supreme Court verdict in the appeal. “I would like to thank God almighty.”

Sharif, who heads the second largest party in the country, has said he has no desire to destabilize the government or campaign for early elections, but given the combative nature of Pakistani politics, that could change. Since its creation in 1947, only one government in Pakistan has seen through its five-year term.

Pakistan’s Western allies are anxious to see political stability in the country.

Media reports quoting unnamed U.S. officials early this year suggested that the United States was trying to encourage the increasingly unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari to share power with Sharif as a way of shoring up the country’s moderate center.

Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has cultivated ties with the U.S. and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight against Islamic extremists. Sharif is considered closer to Islamic parties and conservative factions that in the past have wholeheartedly supported the fight against extremists, and instead said they were fighting “America’s War.”

But his party is supporting a military offensive against militants in the Swat Valley.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled Sharif was not eligible for office, a decision it said was final.

But Sharif led nationwide protests against the government, which backed down and allowed him to appeal the decision — a move praised by the United States and Britain.

That prompted widespread speculation that a behind-the-scenes deal had been reached to allow Sharif to return to political life. As such, Tuesday’s decision was widely expected.

“The decision will ease tension in Pakistan’s political system,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political analyst. “(Sharif’s political party) was angry and worried. Now it will assert itself in the political scene of the country.”

Sharif returned from exile in 2007 seeking to contest elections, but was disqualified by a court because of a prior criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against Sharif’s government by then-Gen. Pervez Musharraf.


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