Pakistan's Supreme Court declared the country's main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his brother ineligible for office today, threatening to create political instability as this nuclear nation copes with a rising Taliban insurgency.
The decision will open up a gulf between Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, and President Asif Ali Zardari, whom Sharif has repeatedly accused of leaning on the court to rule against him.
It will not change the balance of power in the federal government, which Zardari's party has headed for more than a year. But it could help create a groundswell of anger at the Pakistan People's Party that has the possibility of helping destabilize the ruling coalition. That fear helped push the Pakistani stock market down almost 5 percent.
"In the long run, it will destabilize the federal government, said Shafqat Mahmood, a former diplomat and senator. "Because our history tells us that confrontation in the political class leads to the breakdown in democracy."
The country's Supreme Court ruled that because of a previous criminal conviction, Sharif would not be eligible to run in an election. It also declared that Sharif's brother Shahbaz, the head of the country's most powerful province, was ineligible for his position because of election irregularities. He vacated the Punjab chief minister's mansion quickly following the ruling.
The ruling will likely have the most destabilizing influence on Punjab, which has historically been the most politically influential province in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif's party holds the most seats in the provincial assembly, but the province's governor is a Zardari ally and has the authority to dissolve the assembly. Senior Zardari party members have predicted in the past that they would try to bring down the PML-N assembly.
But the full, direct effect of the decision will likely not be known until March 16, when a "Long March" organized by a lawyers' movement is expected to arrive in Islamabad. Analysts say that Nawaz Sharif is expected to give his full backing to the march, and only then will it be clear whether there is enough fury among the population to convince members of the ruling coalition to openly oppose Zardari.
"The economy, the security situation, the state of governance in the country, that's what will fuel the long march," says Majid Nizami, the managing editor of The Nation newspaper. "It is very strong opposition which the government will be confronted with."
But Nizami and most analysts doubt that the Long March will provide enough ammunition for Zardari's enemies to try and immediately break up the coalition.
In part they say Zardari's fate lies with Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani, who has been courted by the opposition and has recently tried to ease tensions between Zardari's Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
"The whole effort is to contain Zardari rather than to oust him. The instrument of containment is the prime minister's office and much depends on Gilani and which way he's going to go," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Western officials and most Pakistani analysts predict that Gilani will not openly oppose Zardari -- nor will the country's powerful military and intelligence establishment -- in the near future.
"I don't think there will be any overt move to destabilize the system," Nizami said.
The decision sparked protests across the country. Local television showed images of demonstrators in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi, some of them burning tires in the streets and blocking roads. But there was no indication that the protesters were using violence.
Still, the decision has created fear that Pakistan is headed for even more instability as the government and the Taliban in the northwest frontier discuss imposing Islamic law in the Swat Valley.
"It seems to be Pakistan's destiny and fate to stumble from one crisis to another," Ayaz Amir, a member of Sharif's party, told a local television channel.