Saeed Shah

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was convicted of contempt of court but was spared jail time by the judge Thursday and could now be disqualified from office.

Gilani had refused to follow court orders for more than two years, which required his government to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen dormant money-laundering cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.

The guilty verdict threw the country into fresh political turmoil, with sporadic small street protests staged by party workers Thursday a prelude of what lies ahead. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif demanded that Gilani quit and new elections be called immediately.

“We cannot consider him [Gilani] prime minister after today’s verdict,” Sharif said.

The uncertainty and focus on the domestic political crisis means that other government business, including the attempts to mend broken ties with Washington, will receive limited attention for now.

The judges clearly indicated they thought Gilani must be removed from parliament, which would mean he could not be prime minister, but in a confusing verdict, they seemed to recognize that they did not have the power to do so.

The issue now appears set to go before the speaker of the parliament and the Election Commission, under a four-month disqualification procedure laid down in the constitution, though many lawyers insisted that Gilani stood immediately disbarred.

The conviction could mean that Gilani is not eligible to stand in the next election. The speaker of parliament belongs to the People’s Party, adding a further roadblock to disqualification. Under the Pakistani constitution, the prime minister runs the government, while the president is a more senior but symbolic position. However, this administration is controlled by President Zardari, as he is the head of the ruling party.