Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: The atmosphere of political confrontation in Pakistan thickened on Tuesday with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif once again reiterating his commitment to the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Ifthikar Chaudhary and pledging his party’s support to a lawyers’ rally on March 9, the second anniversary of his ouster.

Mr. Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), is facing a move to disqualify him from contesting elections on the basis of his conviction in two cases soon after his 1999 ouster in a military coup.

The Supreme Court is hearing the case, and on Tuesday adjourned the matter until Wednesday.

The former Prime Minister’s latest gambit appears to signal that disqualification could set off a no-holds-barred confrontation with the Pakistan People’s Party-led government.

Mr. Sharif, who has said he does not recognise the present Chief Justice, Abdul Hameed Dogar, as a legitimate holder of the office, is not fighting the case against him in the Supreme Court. He has said he will not accept any ruling by the court.

Two lawyers allied to the PML(N) are, however, representing his interests in the case.

For its part, the government appears keen to keep the disqualification sword dangling over the increasingly popular Mr. Sharif — some surveys have indicated he is Pakistan’s most popular leader today — hoping this can prevent him from setting off a political plan against it.

The March elections to the Senate, where members are elected by the provincial assemblies, will see the PML(N) and PPP trying to maximise their presence in the upper house with an eye on coming battles in Parliament.

The PML(N) has already initiated a move to clip the powers of the presidency through a proposed amendment to the Constitution, threatening to introduce it in the National Assembly soon. The move has caused fears in the top leadership of the PPP that it could become a lightning rod for dissidence against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The PML(N) and the PPP are also engaged in a battle of wits in the Punjab province, where Mr. Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif is the Chief Minister.

The differences between the two parties in the province have risen to new heights, reducing their coalition government to a partnership only in name.