Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from public office over long-running corruption allegations, a decision that ousts him from the premiership for the third time.
The ruling plunges the country into fresh political turmoil roughly one year before scheduled general elections which would have seen Sharif become the first Pakistani prime minister to complete a full five-year term.
As the verdict was announced in Islamabad opposition supporters erupted in applause, rushing into the street chanting slogans and handing out sweets in celebration.
But in Lahore, capital of Sharif’s power base Punjab province, sporadic protests broke out, with his supporters burning tyres in the roads and blocking streets.
The allegations stem from the Panama Papers leak last year, and centre on the lavish lifestyles and luxury London property portfolio of the Sharif dynasty.
“He is disqualified as a member of the parliament so he has ceased to be holding the office of Prime Minister,” Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan told the packed courtroom in Islamabad.
The court also asked the national anti-corruption bureau to launch a further probe into the allegations against Sharif and his family, which could see criminal charges brought against the powerful Sharif dynasty.
The Sharifs and their allies have consistently and noisily rejected the claims against them.
“Not a single penny (of) corruption has been proved in this decision against Nawaz Sharif and the people of Pakistan also know it,” information minister Maryam Aurangzeb told reporters after the decision.
Sharif’s ruling PML-N party confirmed he had “relinquished his position”. The party currently has no clear successor in place. Sharif’s daughter Maryam is his presumptive political heir but does not hold public office, while his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the current chief minister of Punjab province, holds only a provincial seat.
“Inshallah (God willing) Nawaz Sharif will also be elected again for a fourth time,” Aurangzeb added.
The push against Sharif has been spearheaded by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party.
“I want to thank (the) judges on behalf of the people of Pakistan because they made the impossible possible,” PTI vice president Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters outside the court.
Senior political commentator Farooq Moin said the judgement was “historic”.
“The situation is quite fluid and it is difficult to say at the moment whether there will be snap elections or an interim government will be formed,” he told AFP, though he added chances were “bright” that the PML-N would form a new government.