By Drazen Jorgic
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's Supreme Court will announce on Friday whether it will disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after an investigative panel alleged his family's wealth was far above their earnings in a scathing corruption report.
The legal proceedings against Sharif have captivated the nuclear-armed South Asian nation, where politicians are seldom subjected to the kind of scrutiny undergone by the premier.
But the possibility of Sharif's third stint in power being cut short has also raised concerns about Pakistan's fragile democracy as no prime minister has completed a full term in power since independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Sharif, 67, denies wrongdoing and has warned his ouster would destabilize Pakistan at a time when the economy was rebounding after a decade of political and security chaos.
Sharif has alleged a conspiracy against him, although he has not named anyone. His allies, however, have privately spoken of elements in the judiciary and the military, with whom Sharif has strained relations, acting against him. The army denies any involvement.
Sharif's opponents say the prime minister is concocting claims of conspiracy to save his skin, saying he has lost all moral authority to govern.
The Supreme Court will start reading its verdict at 1130 local time (0630GMT). There was a heavy police and army presence around the court in the hours before the ruling.
"As long as the Supreme Court stays within the law, we feel very good and confident that nothing negative will happen to the prime minister," Miftah Ismail, a state minister and senior official in Sharif's ruling PML-N party, told Reuters.
"If the Supreme Court takes a flight away from strict interpretation of the law, then anything can happen."
The court could dismiss Sharif outright or recommend a fresh investigation by the National Accountability Bureau, which would give Sharif breathing space before the next general election that must occur by early August in 2018.
Some analysts say the court may also refer Sharif to the electoral commission to see whether he is fit to stand again as premier. The PML-N party would in either case retain its majority in parliament before next polls.
Several cabinet ministers, including Sharif's closest allies, said the ruling party would respect the Supreme Court verdict.
Huma Yusuf, a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, said Sharif's removal would send a powerful message to the political elite that rampant corruption will be investigated, but it would also deal a blow to Pakistan's frail democracy.
"The question will be whether there are sufficient gains in terms of accountability to offset the step back in democracy," she said.
Sharif, the son of an industrialist, saw both of his first two stints in power cut short in the 1990s, including by a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.
"PANAMA PAPERS" FALLOUT
The Supreme Court agreed last year to investigate the Sharif family's wealth after the opposition threatened protests after the leaking of the "Panama Papers", which revealed his family had bought posh London apartments through offshore companies.
The Supreme Court ruled in April there was insufficient evidence to remove Sharif from office - by a 2-3 verdict - but it ordered a probe by an investigative panel that included members of the military intelligence agencies.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) this month returned its findings in a 254-report that said Sharif's family assets do not match their earnings. The panel also accused his children, including heir apparent Maryam, of signing forged documents to obscure ownership of the London flats.
They all deny wrongdoing.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Sharif's ouster would leave Pakistan in a "precarious" position but added that the country has a long history of dealing with such disqualifications.
The Supreme Court in 2012 disqualified then-Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani over a contempt of court case.
"This wouldn't exactly be uncharted territory for Pakistan, because we've seen this movie before," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE and Syed Raza Hassan and Asif Shahzad in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Neil Fullick)