ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister on Tuesday on corruption allegations, ratcheting up pressure on a government that is also facing street protests led by a cleric who has a history of ties to the army.
The combination of the arrest order and the mass protest in the capital Islamabad led by Muslim cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri raised fears among politicians that the military was working with the judiciary to force out a civilian leader.
“There is no doubt that Qadri’s march and the Supreme Court’s verdict were masterminded by the military establishment of Pakistan,” Fawad Chaudhry, an aide to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, told Reuters.
“The military can intervene at this moment as the Supreme Court has opened a way for it.”
However, the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has a majority in parliament and lawmakers can simply elect another prime minister if Ashraf is ousted. In June, Ashraf replaced Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a previous showdown between the government and the judiciary.
Also, elections are due in a few months and President Asif Ali Zardari hopes to lead the first civilian government in Pakistan’s 65 years as an independent nation that will complete its full term.
But power struggles will distract the unpopular government from tackling an array of problems – a Taliban insurgency, economic stagnation and growing sectarian tensions triggered by bomb attacks and tit-for-tat shootings.
The military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Pakistan’s stability, has long regarded the PPP-led government as corrupt, incompetent and unable to prevent the nuclear-armed country from falling apart.
Pakistan’s powerful army has a long history of coups and intervening in politics. But these days generals seem to have little appetite for a coup. Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics.
But many believe top military leaders still try to exert behind-the-scenes influence, and any moves by the military in the latest crisis could not happen without a green light from Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan.
“Extra-constitutional regime change, or “outside of the political calendar” if you will, is only possible in Pakistan with the tacit nod of the military, on account of it being a long-time stakeholder in Pakistani politics,” said Shamila Chaudhry, an analyst at Eurasia Group.