Pakistan's court order to arrest the prime minister unsettles nation

The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Ashraf, sparking rumors of a conspiracy against the country's democracy. But analysts are calling for calm.

B.K. Bangash/AP/File
In this June 2012 file photo, Pakistan's prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, waves in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan's Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of Mr. Ashraf as part of a corruption case involving private power stations, officials said Tuesday.

The news that the Supreme Court had called for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf ran through Pakistan like an electric current Tuesday afternoon.

The order for Mr. Ashraf's arrest – alongside the arrests of 15 other people – comes after a longstanding court case in which he has been accused of receiving kickbacks in a rental power project and buying foreign property with illegal money during his tenure as minister for water and power. The news also comes just months before the country is set to hold elections, and a day after Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian-Pakistani cleric, led tens of thousands of organized protesters to the capital to demand “electoral reform” and an end to corruption, violence, and power outages. 

Mr. Qadri's demand that the Pakistani Army be involved in elections, and the declaration of the arrest order in the middle of a speech in front of the Pakistani Parliament, has sparked rumors of a conspiracy against the country's fledgling democracy. For the first time in Pakistani history, a democratic government looked set to complete its full tenure. No other democratic government in Pakistan has sat its full time in office, dismissed either by the courts or by an Army coup.

It remains unclear what effect the decision to remove the prime minister will have on Pakistan's democracy, and its overall economic and social stability. Immediate public reactions seemed volatile.

Within minutes of the news breaking, the Karachi Stock Exchange shed some 500 points. The country's influential Geo News TV channel has started running democracy commercials, visibly concerned that the decision might undermine the country's current political system. However, legal and political commentators are calling for calm, and say that the decision does not necessarily mean that the democratic process has been undermined.

“He has not been convicted of anything. All that is happening is that the court is demanding an investigation in the rental power case. There is no doubt that there is talk of a dramatic escalation. But if the government plays its cards well, they can wriggle out of this. There is still some life left in this Parliament, and this government,” says political analyst Cyril Almeida.

In an interview with Geo News's Hamid Mir, Supreme Court advocate Salman Akram Raja pointed out that the prime minister is not necessarily dismissed from office even if he is arrested. “He will legally remain the prime minister,” Mr. Raja told Mr. Mir.

The recently released court order does not directly name the prime minister. According to Supreme Court advocate Feisal Naqvi, it "calls for the arrest of those accused in the rental power case", which includes the prime minister. According to Mr. Naqvi, the court became frustrated with the "foot-dragging" of the corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Board, and is following up on what it feels the institution should have done.

The call for calm from legal and political analysts did not appear to settle the prime minister's office. In a conversation with The Christian Science Monitor, the prime minister's adviser Fawad Chaudhury called the decision “illegal,” and said that the order “revealed the nexus of power between the chief justice, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and the establishment.”

This is the second time within a year that the Supreme Court has issued a controversial judgment seen as taking direct aim at the office of the prime minister. In April 2012, Ashraf’s predecessor, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, was retroactively dismissed from office as a result of a contempt of court conviction. Mr. Gilani refused to follow court orders, demanding that the government write a letter to Swiss authorities meant to cancel an earlier letter that stopped Switzerland from pursuing graft cases against Gilani's boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. 

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