ISLAMABAD Pakistan's Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended a ruling barring former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother from holding elected office and restored their government in the key province of Punjab.
President Asif Ali Zardari plunged Pakistan into a political crisis a month ago by dismissing the government in Punjab after the Supreme Court ruled that the Sharif brothers could not hold elected office because of old convictions.
The court in its latest decision suspended the late February ruling and allowed Shahbaz Sharif, who was chief minister of Punjab, to resume office.
"The operation of the February 25 order has been suspended," Judge Tassaquq Hussain Jilani told the court.
However, while Shahbaz Sharif has been allowed to resume office, Nawaz Sharif must await a final petition ruling which seeks to lift a ban on him running for parliament. The former prime minister is currently not a member of parliament.
Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani welcomed restoration of Sharif's government in Punjab and hoped it would promote political reconciliation in the country.
"It is hoped that the restoration of government in Punjab will take the process of reconciliation further forward and help in diluting the bitterness generated recently," a spokesman for Zardari said in a statement.
Speaking to Reuters shortly before the verdict, Sharif said he "very much" wanted reconciliation but Zardari needed to do more to dispel mistrust.
"I am not very keen simply to become the prime minister or the president. We will wait until the next election. We want to support the center, we want to support the present government in Islamabad," he said.
CLIPPING PRESIDENIAL POWERS
However, he said Zardari should agree to give up his sweeping powers, including the power to dismiss a government, and implement an agreement he had signed with Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and Zardari's wife who was assassinated in a suicide gun and bomb attack in December 2007.
"The country will be very unlucky if these powers are not given back to the parliament and the prime minister. We want the same system as Britain and India."
The one-year-old civilian federal government led by Zardari appeared shaky this month as Sharif drove through Punjab at the head of a mass protest that raised fears of a violent climax in Islamabad.
The government placed barricades around the capital and put the army on alert as Sharif led the so-called Long March protest rally from the eastern city of Lahore.
Zardari imposed federal rule, known as governor's rule, after dismissing Shahbaz Sharif's government. The Sharif brothers said Zardari was behind the February 25 court ruling.
Fearful of instability in a nuclear-armed nation already under threat from al Qaeda and Taliban militants, Western governments and the Pakistan army persuaded Zardari to defuse the crisis by submitting to Sharif's demand for the reinstatement of a top judge.
Having reluctantly restored Iftikhar Chaudhry as Supreme Court chief justice, Zardari said on Saturday he would let Sharif's party take power again in Punjab, Pakistan's largest and most politically influential province.
Zardari lifted governor's rule on Monday and has said his party would support Sharif's government in Punjab but would sit in opposition.
(Additional reporting by Simon Denyer in Lahore; Editing by Sugita Katyal)