ISLAMABAD • While opposition party lawmakers celebrated the Supreme Court's decision to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office, ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party members insisted that Mr Sharif's days are not over.
"This is a difficult time for the PML-N," Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Dawn newspaper yesterday. "But the power to make party decisions will remain with Nawaz Sharif."
Mr Sharif's two previous stints as prime minister had also been cut short, including by a military coup in 1999, but he returned from exile to win a resounding victory in a general election in 2013.
Although he is no longer the prime minister, Mr Sharif remains the head of PML-N, the largest party in the National Assembly. This will allow him to oversee the nomination of his successor, who will then be rubber stamped in a parliamentary vote, where his party and coalition partners command a 209-seat majority in the 342-seat Lower House.
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State Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told a press conference after yesterday's verdict: "That day is not far, when he will be chosen for the fourth time."
Yesterday's court ruling plunged Pakistan into fresh political turmoil roughly one year before a scheduled general election, which would have seen Mr Sharif become the first Pakistani prime minister to complete a full five-year term.
Analysts also warned that another bout of political turmoil would spook foreign investors, who are already wary of investing in Pakistan, deterred by security fears and a tough business climate.
As the verdict was announced in Islamabad, opposition supporters erupted in applause, rushing into the streets chanting slogans and handing out sweets in celebration.
But in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province - Mr Sharif's power base - sporadic protests broke out, with his supporters burning tyres on the roads and blocking streets.
In a landmark ruling, all five members of a High Court Bench voted to disqualify Mr Sharif from office, reinforcing previous findings that the Prime Minister had lied to the nation about his family's wealth and financial dealings. It referred the case to a special "accountability" court for prosecution.
Mr Sharif has said that he would accept the court's verdict in the Panama Papers case, in which opposition leaders charged that the Sharif family had hidden its wealth overseas through a complex trail of real estate transactions.
Before the ruling, one of the justices described these dealings as "mafia" behaviour.
While the court ruling left the ruling party in a shambles, it gave a powerful boost to Mr Sharif's main political opponent, former cricket star Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf party, who brought the original case against him.
But supporters of Mr Sharif, whose moniker is the "Lion of Punjab", believe he will yet again roar back to the country's top office.
Before his disqualification from office yesterday, the 67-year-old had already made two seemingly unthinkable comebacks, underscoring the unpredictable nature of Pakistani politics.
He comes across as soft-spoken and shy with international media, but earned a reputation for combativeness during his two previous terms as prime minister, from 1990 to 1993, and from 1997 to 1999.
"Those who are happy and dancing will cry tomorrow," said Mr Abid Sher Ali, a junior minister. "They have stabbed democracy in the back."
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE