ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Supreme Court paved the way for opposition leader Nawaz Sharif to return to parliament, presaging a change in the nation’s political landscape.
Tuesday’s widely expected Supreme Court decision to overturn a ban on Mr. Sharif, a two-term former prime minister, from holding elected office removed an immediate political flashpoint and potential source of instability.
But because Mr. Sharif is arguably Pakistan’s most popular politician, the decision raised the prospect of sweeping political change, at a time when the government is fighting Taliban militants and struggling to shore up a shaky economy. A recent poll put Mr. Sharif’s approval rating at 75%, while President Asif Ali Zardari’s rating stood at 19%.
National elections aren’t due for four years, but only a single Pakistani government has served a full, five-year term since independence in 1947.
Mr. Sharif’s return to parliament could aid efforts by the legislature to repeal presidential powers boosted under former President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, and return the job to its largely ceremonial role.
Mr. Sharif is still blocked from the premiership by a ban on prime ministers serving a third time. That, too, could be overturned by the Supreme Court.
The court decision also gives the U.S. another potential ally. U.S. officials concerned about the declining political fortunes of their ally, Mr. Zardari, have in recent months begun cultivating closer ties with Mr. Sharif.
The U.S. had long viewed Mr. Sharif as too cozy with Islamist politicians and potentially weak on militant extremism. He says he opposes Islamist militancy and has supported the military offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley, despite criticism by some members of his party.
“Today an independent judiciary is giving independent decisions,” Mr. Sharif said Tuesday.
Mr. Sharif said his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which holds the second-most seats in parliament after Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party, would decide when he would contest a by-election.
The Supreme Court in February upheld Mr. Sharif’s ban, imposed after he was ousted in the 1999 military coup because of criminal convictions that he says were politically motivated. The Court also nullified the 2008 election of his brother, who had been chief minister of Punjab.
Mr. Sharif organized nationwide protests that in March forced Mr. Zardari to let the government appeal February’s decisions, allow the reinstatement of ousted chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and end federal rule in Punjab.