ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's top court on Tuesday lifted a ban on popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif contesting elections, paving the way for his return to parliament and removing the first major barrier to his 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 neighboring Afghanistan.
The ruling came as Pakistan's army claimed more gains in a monthlong offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley and surrounding districts that has been welcomed by foreign governments but has displaced more than 2 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. The judges 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 by-election when a seat becomes available. To become prime minister in polls in 2013, he would have to lobby lawmakers to overturn a constitutional bar on holding the position three times.
"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.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the head of Pakistan's largest party, has cultivated ties with the U.S. and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight against Islamic extremists. But his popularity began withering soon after he assumed office a year ago amid a punishing economic crisis and persistent terror attacks.