ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan's top court dismissed the prime minister for contempt on Tuesday, ushering in a new round of political turmoil in a nation vital to American hopes of withdrawing from Afghanistan.
The Supreme Court ruling was a major escalation in a long-running confrontation between the judges and the government, and appeared to be a knockout blow against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, effectively dismissing his Cabinet as well.
A spokesman for Gilani's Pakistan People's Party, Zaman Kaira, said the party had "reservations" about the verdict and urged supporters to stay calm. He said the party was meeting with coalition partners and legal experts on its next step. Hours later, the country's election commission officially announced that Gilani was no longer prime minister.
In the past, the PPP, the largest party in a fragile ruling coalition, has said it would have the numbers in parliament to elect a new premier if Gilani was ousted by the court. Some suggested that Gilani and his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, might try to resist the order. That could spark institutional deadlock and social unrest, even raising the possibility of the army staging a coup as it has done three times in the country's past.
The political chaos comes amid a near breakdown in relations between the United States and Pakistan, whose ties to the Afghan Taliban make it important in any negotiated settlement in neighboring Afghanistan.
Washington wants Pakistan to reopen supply lines to Afghanistan that were blocked in November to protest U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani border troops. With anti-Americanism rife, the government - now even weaker politically - will be less likely to swiftly undertake the unpopular stop of reopening the supply lines.
The Supreme Court ordered the country's election commission to formally dismiss Gilani and said he had not legally been the prime minister since April 26, when the court convicted him for contempt for refusing to open a corruption probe against Zardari dating back to the 1990s and involving the jurisdiction of courts in Switzerland.
"The office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly," said Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, who then ordered Zardari to "ensure the continuation of the democratic process", widely seen as instructing him to begin the process of electing a new premier.
Yasin Azad, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said Gilani had the right to file a "review petition" against the ruling within 30 days, but it would have little chance of success.
Ahsan Iqbal, an opposition leader, praised the ruling and urged Zardari to nominate a new prime minister.
"Gilani stands disqualified," he said. "Now the president should convene the session of the parliament to elect a new prime minister."
The Zardari government has failed to make any headway in tackling any of the nuclear-armed nation's many problems, including near economic collapse and its own struggle against Islamist militants behind attacks that have left many thousands dead over the last five years.
As the ruling was read out, thousands of people were rioting in the nation's heartland of Punjab over rolling power cuts that have left many houses with electricity for just four hours a day. Police said unrest broke out in scores of towns, with officers firing tear gas against rock-throwing protesters, who torched scores of buildings, including one belonging to a lawmaker.
The ruling was the culmination of a process that began in a Supreme Court decision in 2009 ordering the government to ask authorities in Switzerland to reopen the cases against Zardari. Gilani refused, saying the president had immunity from prosecution so long as he was in office and that doing so would violate the constitution. In January the court ordered contempt proceedings against him.
Gilani has been refusing to step down, saying he has done nothing wrong and accusing the Supreme Court's chief justice of having a vendetta against him and his party. Some independent analysts also have expressed unease at the actions of the Supreme Court, saying its initial decision to go after Zardari was politically motivated and that in a democracy the people - not judges - should be the ones to oust the prime minister in elections.
In the world of Pakistani politics, the court order against Gilani could become an advantage to his and Zardari's party in elections that have to be called before early next year. It will likely portray the case against Gilani as the latest in a long line of unjust decisions by the courts and the army and use it to fire up the party's base ahead of elections. Party founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the court in 1979.
The verdict ruling came as the Supreme Court itself was reeling under its own corruption scandal. Last week, a wealthy property tycoon with links to the army and the government alleged that justice Chaudry's son received millions of dollars from him to influence cases involving him being heard at the court.
Some observers speculated that the move to dismiss Gilani was aimed at deflecting attention from this scandal, which has weakened Chaudry.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor at Lahore University of Management Science, said Zardari's government was unlikely to accept the court's decision.
"The political situation is not likely to be decided very peacefully I am afraid. It will be decided by demonstrations," he said.
If Gilani does not step down, the Supreme Court could call on the president or the military to enforce the decision, Rais said. "Pakistan is in a real mess."