Pakistanís Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in a corruption case on Tuesday afternoon, dramatically raising the stakes in a tense standoff between the government and its opponents.
The court order came as an enigmatic preacher turned politician, Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, addressed thousands of supporters outside parliament and repeated calls for the governmentís ouster. In earlier speeches, he has said that a caretaker administration led by technocrats should take its place.
The confluence of the two events stoked growing speculation that Pakistanís powerful military was quietly supporting moves that would delay general elections that are due to take place this spring, most likely through the imposition of a military-backed caretaker administration.
It was not certain that the two events were linked. Some analysts said that in calling for the prime ministerís arrest, the court, which is led by the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was simply taking advantage of anti-government sentiment generated by Qadri in order to pursue its longstanding grudge against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Whatever the motivations, the courtís actions added to the chaos in Pakistan, with the stock market dropping 3 per cent.
In its order issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau, a government body that investigates graft, to arrest Ashraf and 15 other senior current or former officials, including a former finance minister and a former finance secretary.
The case relates to longstanding allegations that Ashraf took lakhs of rupees in kickbacks as part of a deal to build two electricity power plants as minister for water and power between March 2008 and February 2011. The order comes more than a year after two opposition figures filed a complaint in the Supreme Court against Ashraf. In March 2012, the court had ruled that the power plants were illegal, ordered their closure, and instituted proceedings against Ashraf.
Fawad Chaudhry, a senior adviser to Ashraf, said that any attempt to arrest the prime minister would be ďillegal and unconstitutional.Ē ďUnder the law, the court cannot arrest him,Ē he said.
President Zardari has called a meeting of senior advisers at his Karachi residence to discuss the crisis late Tuesday, he added. Zardariís supporters have painted the prosecution as part of a politically tinged drive by Justice Chaudhry to unseat Zardari.
Whether there was any link between the court order and Qadriís march on Islamabad ó billed by the preacher as a ďmillion man marchĒ