ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's increasingly assertive Supreme Court declared Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani ineligible for office on Tuesday.
However, there seems to be no immediate threat to the stability of the government since the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has a comfortable majority in parliament.
But the move is bound to sharply raise tensions between the civilian government and Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has made a name for himself in recent years by taking on Pakistan's most powerful figures.
In April, the Supreme Court found Gilani guilty of contempt of court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
"Yusuf Raza Gilani stands disqualified as a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (parliament)," said Chaudhry, in a packed courtroom. "He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan ... the office of the prime minister stands vacant."
Fawad Chaudhry, a senior Gilani aide, said only parliament could dismiss the prime minister, a view shared by analysts.
However, within hours of the Supreme Court decision, state television reported that the Election Commission of Pakistan had issued the official notification of Gilani's disqualification. The ruling can be challenged.
While the decision is a big blow to the PPP, it is unlikely to lead to the fall of the unpopular government.
The PPP and its coalition partners have the numbers in parliament to elect a new prime minister until the government's term ends early next year when a general election is due.
"I don't see this as a major constitutional breakdown unless the PPP ignores this decision," said legal expert Salman Raja.
"I think sanity will prevail and they should be able to do that (replace Gilani) fairly easily given that they just passed the budget - they clearly have a majority (in parliament)."
The PPP's central executive committee said it would set aside reservations it has on the judgment, consult with legal advisors and then formulate a strategy. The party urged its workers to exercise restraint.
"Once we have finished our consultations, parliament is the forum for this. We will see what route we have to take," senior PPP official Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters. Zardari canceled a visit to Russia over the Supreme Court judgment, a presidential spokesman said.
Gilani is the first serving prime minister in Pakistan's history to be convicted by a court.
Thousands of corruption cases were thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf, which paved the way for a return to civilian rule.
Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that agreement illegal and ordered the re-opening of money laundering cases against Zardari that involved Swiss bank accounts.
Gilani and his government refused to obey the court's order to write to Swiss authorities asking them to re-open money laundering cases against Zardari, arguing that Zardari had immunity as the head of state. (Reuters)