Court ruling a blow to democracy Pakistan PM says

Senate ballot will go ahead as scheduled on March 3 after Supreme Court nullified decisions made by former premier Sharif

Supporters of ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif shout slogans against the Supreme Court verdict outside an accountability court where Sharif arrived to face corruption charges in Islamabad on February 22, 2018.

Islamabad: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said a court order that barred former premier Nawaz Sharif from leading the ruling party and placed the timing of Senate elections into question hinders democracy and relived past “dictatorial decisions.”

The Senate ballot will go ahead as scheduled on March 3 after the Supreme Court nullified decisions made by Sharif in his capacity as president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, including candidate tickets in his name, Abbasi said in an interview. However, the Election Commission on Thursday turned down the party’s re-submission of Senate candidates, saying they would be take part in the poll as independent contestants.

The ruling was the latest legal decision to go against Sharif. He was barred from office last July by the top court following a corruption probe into his family’s finances, but was then re-elected by his party as PML-N president in October. Despite the graft charges against him, across Pakistan’s cities Sharif’s face dominates his party’s campaign posters ahead of national elections due in five months. He has consistently denied any wrong doing.

“Such decisions never have strengthened democracy,” Abbasi, a Sharif loyalist who was picked by the ruling party as a replacement premier in August, said in Islamabad late Wednesday after the verdict. “The court has made a decision and we accept it. The masses themselves will respond to this verdict in the election or even before. The party has issued its stance that Nawaz Sharif is our leader.”

Abbasi’s comments on “dictatorial decisions” will resonate in a nation that has been ruled for almost half of its 70-year history by the military. In an earlier interview this month, Abbasi conceded there had been tensions in the past year with the armed forces, which he said eased once Sharif was disqualified as prime minister.

Sharif is seen to have an acrimonious relationship with the army – he was previously removed from power in a 1999 coup and sent with some of his family into exile in Saudi Arabia. The six-man Supreme Court-mandated investigative team that brought about Sharif’s latest downfall also included two active members of the military’s intelligence arms.

On Thursday, Sharif told reporters in Islamabad the court was seeking “revenge” and was attempting to disqualify him for life. However, Imran Khan, the leader of the second-largest opposition party that has pushed a relentless anti-corruption campaign against Sharif, said the Supreme Court provided justice.

“This decision (disqualification from leading a party) is not unexpected for me. First, they paralysed the executive and on Wednesday they snatched the powers of parliament,” he said.

He did not specify who he meant by “they” but apparently it was a reference to the judges of the top court.

He said Wednesday’s decision was a continuation of the apex court verdict of July 28 when he was sacked as prime minister, and added that “deliberations were being made to oust him from politics for life”.

“In the decision of July 28 my premiership was snatched. In the decision of yesterday the post of president of Pakistan Muslim League (N) was snatched.My name is Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. If you want to snatch this name from me, go ahead and take it away,” he said.

That Sharif continued to head his party after being disqualified as prime minister was “degrading,” Khan, a former cricket star widely seen as the biggest challenger to the ruling party, said in comments tweeted by his Movement for Justice party.

Nonetheless, the ruling will impact the economy and investor confidence, Abbasi said, taking a further “toll” on a country that has already suffered considerable political turmoil in the past year. Pakistan’s benchmark stock index rose 1.4 percent at close after falling to its lowest in more than a month on Thursday.

PML-N Chairman Raja Zafarul Haq said the party had started the process to re-elect a president, without giving potential candidates. Shehbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab and younger brother of Nawaz, is the most likely candidate for the party, which is held together by the Sharif family, said Shailesh Kumar, Asia director at Eurasia Group.

“Local markets could face headwinds due to heightened volatility in the short run, at least until there is greater clarity with the status of the party and the Senate elections,” Kumar said in a report. “Longer term though, this development is unlikely to destabilize the country, its security, or social cohesion.”

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