Pakistan Government Jolted by Premier Arrest Order Ahead of Poll

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 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 0.4 percent at 9:33 a.m. today.

“Democracy will survive in Pakistan, no matter how confusing the situation gets from here,” said Mehdi Hasan, a political analyst and dean of the School of Communications at the Lahore-based Beaconhouse National University. “The army isn’t in a position to take over given the security challenges and the precarious economic situation. All the main political parties are in favor of elections which are just round the corner.”

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 Jan. 17. Ashraf, who hasn’t been convicted of any crime, didn’t respond to the court order.

‘Impressive Show’

“The most this crisis will do is to force the government to appoint a neutral caretaker set-up and announce the date of election,” Hasan said by phone yesterday after the court ruling. “Qadri despite his impressive show doesn’t have a political constituency. He can’t force the government to resign that’s still enjoying a majority in parliament.”

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.

‘Exorbitant Rentals’

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.

A short distance from the Supreme Court, Qadri, 61, who heads an Islamic group with 90 branches worldwide, delivered a message aimed at Pakistanis disillusioned by established political parties that they blame for corruption and a faltering economy.

“This is the start of the revolution,” he said after leading a march into the city overnight. “It is the voice of the nation. This protest is peaceful, constitutional, lawful.” He earlier called for the dissolution of the federal and regional assemblies.

After being told of the Ashraf ruling, Qadri informed his followers, mostly middle-class Pakistanis from the most populous province of Punjab. “Say long live the Supreme Court,” he told the crowd, which included a large number of women, gathered 500 meters from the court building. “People have won. The remaining job will be done tomorrow, Insha’Allah.”

Army Pressure

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. Chaudhary said in an e-mailed analysis 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.”

Qadri’s comments mark a more hard-line approach after he had earlier asked the government to consult the army and judiciary on the appointment of a neutral electoral commission and a caretaker administration before a ballot is held. He has vowed to hold a sit-in in the capital, drawing parallels with Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Pew Poll

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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