The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the Pakistani prime minister in connection with a corruption case linked to power projects, television channels reported yesterday, plunging the country into fresh political turmoil.
The move came as a populist cleric, who is believed to be backed by the Pakistani military, demanded the resignation of the government in protests attended by thousands of followers in the heart of the capital, Islamabad.
The Supreme Court gave authorities 24 hours to arrest Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and 16 others.
The cleric, Muhammad Tahir-ulQadri, threatened to remain camped out near the federal parliament with thousands of supporters until his demands were met. Qadri recently returned home from Canada to lead a call for reforms that has made him an instant hit among Pakistanis disillusioned with the state.
It was not clear how much of a threat the two events posed for the US-backed civilian government, but the court order and the mass protest around the parliament complex are the latest in a series of challenges for the administration.
In a speech from behind a bullet-proof shield in front of parliament, Qadri praised the military and the judiciary — Pakistan’s two other power centers.
“[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. Judgements are being passed by our great, independent judiciary, but the government is not ready to implement them,” he added.
A Qadri spokesman said protesters would camp at the parliament until the government dissolved the legislature and announced the formation of a caretaker government.
Pakistani Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik later told local television channels that the government would not cave in to Qadri.
“We will not accept Qadri’s pressure because his demands are unconstitutional,” Malik said.
Qadri’s campaign has divided Pakistanis. Some hold him up as a champion of reform, while others see him as a possible stooge of the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections.
However, he can mobilize thousands of members of his Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organization, which runs a network of schools and clinics and organizes relief for victims of natural disasters.
“He’s spent huge money and he’s putting his life on the line, he’s here to redeem the people,” said Mohammed Waqas Iqbal, a government official from Punjab Province.
Like many of the protesters, Iqbal is an active member of Qadri’s organization, attending daily prayers at a mosque it runs in his village.
Qadri, who holds a doctorate in Islamic law, has impressed his followers with his readiness to leave a comfortable life in Canada to brave potential security threats to participate in Pakistani politics.
Qadri also appears to have found some supporters who are not members of his religious movement, but who hope he may be able to tackle the corruption, economic stagnation and chronic power crisis that have festered under the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
“Dr Qadri could have stayed in Canada with a luxurious lifestyle, but he came to Pakistan to fight for the people,” bus driver Hassan Khan said.
Pakistan’s political parties fear the military is backing Qadri’s movement in the hope it will trigger a crisis that will provide a new opportunity for the army to meddle in politics ahead of elections due in spring.
The government and opposition are poised to start negotiating the formation of a caretaker administration to oversee the run-up to the polls as soon as parliament is dissolved, which is due March. An election date has yet to be announced.
Qadri’s platform hinges on a demand that the judiciary bars corrupt politicians from office and that the army play a possible role in forming the caretaker government.