ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan plunged into a political crisis Tuesday after the country’s top court ordered the arrest of the prime minister just as a protest of unprecedented size hit Islamabad, demanding the dismissal of the government.
The two events were not obviously connected, but with the current government’s term in office ending in weeks and the country prone to military takeovers, many said the coincidence suggested some kind of coup was taking place. In Pakistan’s history, no democratically elected government has ever been succeeded by another democratically elected one.
“This is the establishment working,” said Fawad Chaudhry, a special adviser to Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, whom the Supreme Court ordered arrested in a bribery case. “They want to dismiss the government and put in a long-term interim setup.”
Ashraf was not arrested, and Law Minister Farooq Naek told reporters that only one government agency, the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, had the power to make such arrests.
But even the threat of a move against the prime minister unnerved a city already on edge by the arrival of tens of thousands of protesters led by a charismatic religious cleric, Tahir ul Qadri.
Qadri’s estimated 50,000 protesters, who arrived in the capital Monday night, occupied the wide road that runs the length of Islamabad. In a speech, Qadri called for the dissolution of the current Parliament and demanded that the army have a say in the selection of an interim government to oversee election of a new government. He said many current elected officials should be banned from the balloting. He ordered his followers to remain in the city until his demands are met.
The military made no sign that it supported Qadri’s demands, but it also made no effort to prevent his protest march from entering the city, feeding rumors that he ultimately was doing the army’s bidding and that his true agenda is to prevent elections for a new government from taking place.
“We are here just to save our country from collapse and complete ruin,” Qadri told the crowd. “There is no real democracy, there is no true electoral process.”
He heaped praise on the military and said that its sacrifice of soldiers in fighting terrorism had been wasted by the government.
“We have become a threat to our own country, to the region, to the world,” he said.
The five-year term of the current government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, ends in mid-March. Under Pakistan’s constitution, a caretaker government should then be appointed to oversee elections to select a new government within two months.
Democracy remains fragile in Pakistan, however. The country has been led primarily by military governments that came to power in coups, most recently when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Nawiz Sharif in 1999. Musharraf ruled until he resigned in 2008 and the current government took office after a bloody election campaign that included the assassination of Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto.
Critics say that Zardari’s tenure has taken graft to new heights while failing to tackle basic problems, including terrorism and an acute shortage of gas and electricity. The Supreme Court repeatedly has gone after Zardari, but so far he has been shielded by constitutional immunity granted the president.