ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's Supreme Court is set to determine the prime minister's fate on Thursday (April 20) with a ruling on corruption allegations that could see him ousted from power after the Panama Papers linked his family to offshore businesses.
The decision, highly anticipated by Pakistanis, threatens to plunge Nawaz Sharif's governing party into turmoil ahead of general elections which must be held by next year, and as security and the economy improve in the militancy-plagued country.
The controversy erupted with the publication of the so-called Panama Papers last year, 11.5 million secret documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca which documented the offshore dealings of many of the world's rich and powerful.
Among the global elite implicated were three of Sharif's four children - his daughter and presumptive political heir Maryam, and his sons Hasan and Hussein.
At the heart of the matter is the legitimacy of the funds used by the Sharif family to purchase several high-end London properties via offshore companies.
The government insists the wealth was acquired legally through family businesses in Pakistan and the Gulf.
But lawyers for Pakistani cricketer-turned-opposition-leader Imran Khan argue the paper trail for the funds is non-existent, and say the onus is on Sharif to prove his relatives did not engage in money laundering.
The case has dominated headlines in Pakistan for the better part of a year, though many observers believe the court - which has emphasised it is not conducting a criminal trial - would be reluctant to directly oust Sharif.
It has taken such action before, however. In 2012, the Supreme Court held Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in contempt for refusing to re-open corruption investigations into then President Asif Ali Zardari, resulting in his disqualification.
'CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY'
But the five-member bench could also potentially direct law enforcement agencies to carry out more detailed investigations into the allegations against Sharif, verbally censure him or his children, or clear him entirely.
"The nation is expecting some sort of judgement which will change the course of history in Pakistan," senior Supreme Court lawyer S.M. Zafar told AFP, though he said it was difficult to predict the verdict.
Regardless of the outcome, he said, the case is important for Pakistan, which ranked a lowly 116th place out of 176 countries in a corruption index released by Transparency International in January.
Political analyst Rasul Buksh Rais said: "It's going to be (a) historic decision that will push Pakistan into electoral mood in either case," adding that he did not expect a disqualification verdict.
He added that a new judicial commission could be in the offing, which would allow Khan's party to claim a moral victory for exposing corruption.
The controversy is the latest to hit Sharif, an industrialist who is serving his third term as Prime Minister after the first two were interrupted by interventions from the country's powerful military.
Late Wednesday, he detailed his party's achievements - particularly in infrastructure - in televised comments at the inauguration of a power plant, without mentioning the looming verdict.
If Sharif is ousted, the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) can select a new prime minister from within the party, though there may be political pressure for fresh polls.
Pakistan, which marks its 70th anniversary of independence later this year, has seen a surge in optimism in recent months.
Security has dramatically improved in the last two years, overall confidence in its economy has been growing, and the military, which has ruled the country for more than half its history, appears to have reached an accommodation with Sharif's civilian government.