The Pakistani government has the option of imposing a state of emergency as it confronts a judicial crisis following President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to sack the country's top judge, the prime minister said.
The government's move to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on March 9 outraged the legal community, which sees it as an attack on judicial independence, and galvanized opposition to Musharraf in the run-up to elections.
"There is a provision in the Constitution about the imposition of an emergency and there are certain circumstances under which it is imposed," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters late on Sunday. "The government's decision will depend on the situation," he said.
Lawyers and opposition activists have held sporadic protests since the government suspended Chaudhry over accusations of misconduct. He denies wrongdoing and has refused to resign.
Musharraf had previously ruled out a state of emergency but analysts said the government might be exploring the option as a way out of a crisis that appeared to be deepening.
Chaudhry attracted tens of thousands of supporters on a weekend trip from Islamabad to the city of Lahore where he told a rally on Sunday that states that ignored the rule of law and basic rights faced destruction.
Observers say Musharraf faces no imminent threat to his rule because he retains the support of the powerful army but the crisis has weakened his position.
Musharraf is due to seek re-election in September or October. Controversially, he wants to be re-elected by the national and provincial assemblies before they are dissolved for a general election scheduled for the turn of the year.
Analysts say his main motive in seeking Chaudhry's removal is to have a more pliable man in place in case of a constitutional challenge to his plans.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court took up a challenge from Chaudhry to a judicial panel hearing misconduct accusations against him.
Chaudhry has questioned the competence of the panel, known as the Supreme Judicial Council, and asked the Supreme Court to deal with the matter itself.
Meanwhile, a former provincial minister and leader of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party was shot dead in northwest Pakistan, police said yesterday.
Qamar Abbas was killed late on Sunday in the city of Peshawar.