The prospect of government upheaval in Pakistan threatens to complicate U.S. goals in neighboring Afghanistan. For months, Pakistan has blocked NATO supplies from passing through its territory into Afghanistan. Pakistan's domestic troubles could distract attention from the Obama administration's attempts to negotiate a reopening of the border and to obtain greater Pakistani cooperation in negotiating with the Taliban.
The fragile Pakistani government faces serious economic woes and violent protests against electricity shortages. The country was already due for elections next year, in which the ruling Pakistan People's Party will have to defend its record since taking power from military strongman Pervez Musharraf in 2008.
Although there was no official word from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari by late Tuesday, party leaders indicated that they would accept the court's decision and allow Zardari to name a new prime minister and cabinet. That apparent acquiescence somewhat defused the prospect of an imminent confrontation.
Qamar Zaman Kaira, the information minister, said the court's ruling meant "the prime minister is no more the prime minister."
"The PPP leadership has directed its workers not to resort to demonstrations and protest against this decision as we don't want chaos in the country," Kaira said.
But he added that the party had reservations about the verdict and that Zardari had the authority to decide how to proceed.
The court's decision called for the election commission to formally strip Gilani of his post, which the commission did Tuesday. In April, the court had convicted Gilani of contempt after he refused its demand to reopen an old corruption case against Zardari. By dismissing the premier, the court also effectively dissolved his cabinet.
The ruling came as thousands of people were out in the streets in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, to protest the government's rationing of electricity. Police used tear gas against the crowds as demonstrators set fire to buildings. But people did not appear to be rallying in support of Gilani.
Opposition figures were quick to hail the court's decision, calling it a victory for the rule of law. One of them, Ahsan Iqbal, said it showed that "all people are equal in the eyes of the law."