In a stunning blow to Pakistan’s civilian government, the nation’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is disqualified from holding office for his refusal to investigate a corruption case linked to President Asif Ali Zardari.

Gilani, who has repeatedly asserted that Zardari is immune from any investigation or prosecution while he holds office as head of state, was convicted of contempt charge by the court in late April. The court had demanded that Gilani ask authorities in Switzerland to re-open a multimillion-dollar corruption case against the sitting president.

The contempt charge was largely symbolic since it did not lead to any jail time, nor did it immediately force Gilani out of office.
“Yousuf Raza Gilani has become disqualified from being member of the parliament,” said Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in a statement.

“He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from the same date [April 26, the date of the contempt conviction] and office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly.”

Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of having laundered $12 million in bribe money in Swiss bank accounts in the 1990s.

Even before the court ruling, Gilani, a member of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples’ Party, had shrugged off calls by the opposition to step down, saying only parliament could remove him from office.

In a broader context, the drama engulfing Gilani and Zardari involves the wide gulf between Pakistan’s nominally democratic civilian government and the courts, which are likely being supported by the military.

Over Pakistan’s chaotic 60-plus-year history, the power of the military has always lurked just beneath the surface – and has engineered a number of coups.

It is unclear what will happen now, but the BBC reported that the PPP is engaged in an emergency session, probably to choose a successor for Gilani, who has run out of legal options to stay in power.