Pakistan Government Jolted by Premier Arrest Order, Protests
Pakistan’s government was dealt a double blow months ahead of a landmark election as the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the Prime Minister over alleged corruption in power projects and a popular cleric rallied supporters in the capital.
The twin jolt could hasten preparations for the poll, as President Asif Ali Zardari’s democratically elected administration seeks to create history by becoming the first to complete its five-year term and transfer power through a ballot in a country ruled for half its history by the military.
Yesterday’s court ruling followed hours after Islamic scholar Tahir-ul-Qadri, 61, had gathered thousands of people in the center of Islamabad, vowing to stay put until the government quit and corrupt politicians were removed from the legislature. In Karachi, the two events combined to push the benchmark share index down by 3.2 percent, the most in 17 months. Stocks rose 0.5 percent today.
“The government has been driven into a corner,” said Ayaz Amir, a political analyst and member of the National Assembly, as tens of thousands of protesters continued to occupy streets near parliament. “The crowd will have to be dispersed by force or the government will have to accept something. The army may put pressure on it behind the scenes.”
Pakistan’s top judges ruled that the National Accountability Bureau should arrange warrants for the arrest of Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf and 15 others accused over the handling of contracts for rented power units, according to the court order. The bureau’s chairman has been ordered to report to the court tomorrow. Ashraf, who hasn’t been convicted of any crime, didn’t respond to the court order.
“The most this crisis will do is to force the government to appoint a neutral caretaker set-up and announce the date of election,” said Mehdi Hasan, a political analyst and dean of the School of Communications at the Lahore-based Beaconhouse National University. “Democracy will survive.”
Speaking from his bullet-proof cabin for over three hours today, Qadri asked Ashraf to take a moral decision and step down after the Supreme Court order.
“Does any democratic tradition allow anybody to still maintain the office of the prime minister” after such a ruling, he said, reiterating his resolve to continue with the sit-in until his demands for the reconstitution of the Election Commission and an impartial interim government are met.
Ashraf took power last year after his predecessor was removed by top judges for refusing to order the reopening of graft charges against the president. That confrontation with the Supreme Court, and speculation that it was fueled by a military seeking to remove Zardari from power, distracted the elected government amid a fight with Taliban insurgents and a record power crisis. Rolling outages closed factories and sparked street protests.
Power producers were paid “exorbitant rentals,” while their contracts were not transparent and violated the principles of fair competition, the Supreme Court said March 30 last year. Ashraf was power minister at the time the contracts were awarded and was barred from leaving the country.
Analysts including Eurasia Group’s Shamila Chaudhary said the court’s intervention yesterday amid Qadri’s demonstration was an opportunistic attempt to add to the woes of the Zardari administration.
In an e-mailed analysis, Chaudhary said that the army would watch and tacitly support “constitutional efforts to weaken” the government which the “military views with contempt for its poor economic as well as security track record.”
Fourteen percent of Pakistanis viewed Zardari favorably in a Pew Research Center survey in June, down from 64 percent in 2008. About 87 percent are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, viewing the economy, crime and corruption as the biggest problems, it said. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Under existing law, Zardari’s government will leave office by the end of March, and a caretaker administration approved by a majority of parties represented in parliament will oversee elections within three months.
Qadri’s sudden appearance after years out of Pakistan politics, and his demands that the army have a role in determining the country’s electoral future, have triggered media commentary that the security establishment may be behind his movement. Both Qadri and the army deny any link.
Police briefly clashed with Qadri’s supporters yesterday as they tried to enter the highly-protected red zone where most of the foreign embassies are located, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the Geo TV network in live comments. Malik put the size of the crowd backing Qadri at 20,000 people. Geo, citing intelligence agencies, said it could be twice that figure, far below the turnout claimed by the cleric.
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