While it remains unclear as to when a new provincial government would be formed, Punjab will remain under temporary control of the governor, a Zardari appointee.

Deepening turmoil

The development is a sign of deepening turmoil in Pakistan at a time when Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president, is struggling to stave off political instability.

It has also intensified the confrontation between Pakistan's two leading parties - Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).

Sharif, who together with Shahbaz Sharif has a strong political base in Punjab, has claimed the ruling was meant to keep him out of politics and then called for nationwide protests.

"I assure the nation [that] if they back us, we will establish a democratic set-up in this country," Sharif said on Thursday in a televised media conference.

"I don't believe in violence and do not want any destruction, but if people want to express their feelings against this decision, who can stop them?" Sharif said.

Life imprisonment

Sharif's government was removed in a military coup in 1999 and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the hijacking of a passenger aircraft carrying Pervez Musharraf, who then served as Pakistan's chief of army staff.

Sharif was later exiled to Saudi Arabia but returned to Pakistan in 2007 and led the PML-N to election victory in Punjab, his home province.

The party emerged as the second-largest party in the national assembly and briefly joined a coalition government led by Zardari, but then went into opposition.

Analysts say that Pakistan's political conflict will have far-reaching consequences for the country's fragile democratic process and could directly affect the government's agenda to fight Taliban fighters in tribal areas and in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).