ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's top court Tuesday lifted a ban on opposition leader Nawaz Sharif contesting elections, paving the way for his return to parliament and removing the first major barrier to him becoming prime minister for a third time.
Sharif is key to the hopes of Pakistan's western allies that its moderate political parties will unite to fight the Islamic extremists who are destabilizing the nuclear-armed country as well as threatening the success of the U.S.-led mission in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The ruling came as Pakistan's army claimed more gains in a month-long offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley and surrounding districts that has been welcomed by foreign governments but has displaced more than two million people from their homes.
Judges at the Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling banning Sharif from elected office because of a criminal conviction dating to 2000 that he and most analysts say was politically motivated. They said it was a "miscarriage of justice," but gave no reason.
Sharif gave no hint of his political plans in a news conference minutes after the verdict, but he is now free to return to parliament by contesting a byelection when a seat becomes available. To become prime minister in polls in 2013, he would have to lobby legislators to overturn a constitutional bar on holding the position three times - something his party has long demanded.
"I would like to salute the people of Pakistan again because they, with great effort and struggle, fought for the independence of the judiciary," said Sharif, whom opinion polls easily show as the country's most popular politician. "I would like to thank God almighty."
Sharif's party came second in parliamentary elections last year, behind the party of President Asif Ali Zardari. The two parties originally formed a government together, but after two months Sharif's grouping became the opposition, accusing Zardari of reneging on a vow to restore judges fired by former president Pervez Musharraf.
Media reports quoting unnamed U.S. officials early this year suggested the United States was trying to encourage the increasingly unpopular Zardari to give more power to Sharif as a way of shoring up the country's moderate centre.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the head of Pakistan's largest party, has cultivated ties with the United States and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight against extremists. But his popularity began withering soon after he assumed office a year ago amid a punishing economic crisis and persistent terror attacks.
Critics say Sharif remains close to conservative Muslim factions that are not so vocal in their opposition to the Taliban and see the conflict as "America's War," but his party is secular and supports the government's offensive against the militants in the Swat Valley.
Sharif has said he will not destabilize Zardari's government or campaign for early elections, but given the turbulent nature of Pakistani politics, that could change. Since its creation in 1947, only one government in Pakistan has seen through its five-year term.