The Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges on Tuesday.
The court order gives authorities 24 hours to bring the Prime Minister, and the 16 other people in connection with a corruption case relating to energy projects, before a court. Pakistan’s Stock Exchange fell by almost 3% immediately after the story broke on Pakistani television. Mr Ashraf has denied the charges, which allege that he accepting bribes to approve bids for power generation projects in 2010, when he was serving as the Minister for Water and Power.
Local experts suggest that Mr Ashraf is likely to remain Prime Minister for the time being, and that his lawyers may find a way to delay the court case against him.
Political Chaos in Pakistan
The order to arrest the Prime Minster today, with tens of thousands of anti-government protesters still on the streets of Islamabad, is an unfortunate coincidence – if it is a coincidence at all.
Followers of cleric Tahir ul Qadri clashes with police in the nation’s capital last night, and many thousands are heeding the cleric’s call to maintain their protest until the government is dissolved and fresh elections are called. Government corruption is at the top of their list of complaints, along with government incompetence and the exclusion of ordinary people from the political process. Qadri’s protest movement is styled after the Arab Spring uprisings which toppled governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The Prime Minister’s arrest on corruption charges is sure to embolden the protesters and strengthen their resolve.
At the same time, some may see a conspiracy in the decision to arrest the Prime Minister now, with Qadri’s followers on the streets in their thousands. Pakistan has a long history of tension between the government and the powerful military and judiciary, including a long line of military coups. Mr Qadri’s anti-government protest movement has already been accused by some of being a front for the military. Qadri has called for the current government to be dissolved, and for the military to appoint a transitional government prior to fresh elections. He has also praised both the military and the judiciary, whilst attacking the government:
In a speech from behind a bullet-proof shield in front of parliament, Qadri praised the military and the judiciary, the country’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, in a speech made from behind bullet proof glass in front of the parliament building. “Even they can’t do anything because the political government isn’t able to deliver anything from this land. Judgments are being passed by our great, independent judiciary but the government is not ready to implement them.”
Today’s events will only serve to divide the country further. Some will see the PM’s arrest as a further sign of how badly the country needs Qadri’s reforms, whilst others will see the timing as further evidence that is just the front for another coup by the military and judiciary. Elections, due to take place this spring, will be the first time that a civilian government has passed power over to another civilian government in Pakistan.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said today that the government would not cave in to Qadri’s demands. “We will not accept Qadri’s pressure because his demands are unconstitutional,” he said.