A man rides past motorbikes being burnt by supporters of
Pakistan People's Party in Larkana to protest against a
Supreme Court decision to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez
Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of the
prime minister 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.
"The Qadri march was like a trial balloon. The military
indirectly sent it out to see if it would work."
Some politicians believe the military will try to dominate
the caretaker administration that will oversee the run-up to
the polls after parliament is dissolved, which is due to
happen in March. An election date has yet to be announced.
The protest by Qadri and his followers has also been seen by
commentators as being orchestrated by the military to add to
the pressure on Zardari's government, although the military
has denied any ties to the cleric.
Thousands of followers of the populist cleric camped near the
federal parliament cheered and waved Pakistani flags as
television channels broadcast news of the Supreme Court's
order to arrest Ashraf on charges of corruption.
"We don't want any of those old politicians. They just take
all the people's money," said 19-year-old student Mohammed
Wasim. "We congratulate the whole nation (on the Supreme
Court's order). Now we have to take the rest of the thieves
Government officials said they were baffled by the arrest
order, which came hours after Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry
said elections should go ahead as scheduled.
"This was totally unexpected," an official in Ashraf's office
told Reuters. "The prime minister and two or three of his
friends were watching Qadri speak on television and this
Pakistan's stock exchange fell by more than 500 points, or
nearly three percent, on news of the court order, due to
fears over fresh political turmoil, which comes against a
backdrop of militant bombings and tension on the border with
Qadri, who played a role in backing a military coup in 1999,
threatened to remain camped out near the federal parliament
with thousands of supporters until his demands for the
resignation of the government were met.
The fiery orator returned home from Canada less than a month
ago to lead a call for electoral reforms to bar corrupt
politicians from office that has made him an instant hit
among Pakistanis disillusioned with the state.
In a speech from behind a bullet-proof shield in front of
parliament, Qadri praised the military and the judiciary, the
country's two other power centres.
"(The government) has wasted and brought a bad end to our
armed forces, those armed forces who are highly sincere,
highly competent and highly capable and highly professional,"
he said, alternating between Urdu and English.
"Even they can't do anything because the political government
isn't able to deliver anything from this land. Judgments are
being passed by our great, independent judiciary but the
government is not ready to implement them."
Qadri is demanding that the government dissolve the
legislature and announce the formation of a caretaker
government to oversee the run-up to elections.
One senior military officer, who said he was speaking in a
purely personal capacity, said there was no appetite in the
military to repeat the coups seen in Pakistan's past, but
added the stand-off could be resolved if the army played a
role in the formation of a caretaker government as a
"We should try as far as possible to abide by the
constitution and law in looking for change. The army chief
has made this clear," the officer told Reuters.
"But things seem to be moving beyond control," the officer
added. "It is totally incorrect to say the army is behind
Qadri. But if he brings thousands of people to the streets
and things get worse, there may be very few options."