Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in a corruption case on Tuesday afternoon, in a drastic intensification of hostilities between the country’s embattled 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 government’s ouster. In earlier speeches, he said that a caretaker administration led by technocrats should take its place.
“Victory, victory, victory. By the grace of God,” Mr. Qadri said at the conclusion of a speech to his supporters, who have vowed not to leave a public square outside Parliament until their demands are satisfied.
The confluence of the two events stoked growing speculation that Pakistan’s 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 events were linked. Some analysts said that in ordering the prime minister’s 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 Mr. Qadri in order to pursue its longstanding grudge against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Whatever the motivations, the court’s actions added to the chaos in Pakistan, a country whose nuclear arsenal and strategic interests in next-door Afghanistan has made it a nexus of intrigue in Asia.
In its order issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau, a government body that investigates graft, to arrest Mr. Ashraf and 15 other senior current or former officials, including a former finance minister and a former finance secretary.
The case relates to allegations that Mr. Ashraf took millions of dollars in kickbacks as part of a deal to build two electricity power plants while serving as minister for water and power between March 2008 and February 2011. A court prosecution in the case been ongoing for over one year, so it was the timing of the arrest order that raised eyebrows.
It started in December 2011 when two senior opposition figures filed a petition against Mr. Ashraf in the Supreme Court; four months later the court ruled that the plants were illegal, ordered their closure, and instituted proceedings against Mr. Ashraf.
The case has particular political resonance because Pakistan’s energy crisis, which has seen severe electricity rationing across the country, is the source of some of the main complaints against the government.
The information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said the government had not received any official notification of the order to arrest Mr. Ashraf. Fawad Chaudhry, a senior adviser to the prime minister, said that any such order would be “illegal and unconstitutional.”
“Under the law, the court cannot arrest him,” he said.
President Zardari has called a meeting of senior advisers at his Karachi residence to discuss the crisis late Tuesday, Mr. Chaudhry added.
Mr. Ashraf’s ouster would not necessarily collapse the government, as he could be replaced with another candidate, and the court order could be simply the latest salvo in a long-running conflict between Mr. Zardari and the court.
Last June, Justice Chaudhary forced the resignation of Mr. Ashraf’s predecessor as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, in another corruption case. Whether there was a link between the court and Mr. Qadri’s march on Islamabad — billed by the preacher as a “million man march” but in reality far smaller — was the subject of rampant public speculation.
Mr. Qadri stormed onto the political scene in Pakistan after returning home from a seven-year stint in Canada, where he also holds citizenship, armed with considerable funding that he has used for an intensive television advertising campaign and large rallies.
In his speech Tuesday, which was peppered with emotional Islamic references and delivered with some gusto, he demanded the immediate resignation of the government, and painted the political class as “criminals” who deserved to be prosecuted for corruption.
“There is no Parliament. There is a group of looters, thieves and dacoits!” he said in a thundering voice, pointing to the building behind him. “Our lawmakers are the lawbreakers.”
In contrast, Mr. Qadri offered fulsome support for the military and the Supreme Court. “Now only two institutions are there — the judiciary and the armed forces,” he said.
Dismissing allegations that he is secretly backed by the military, Mr. Qadri said his support came from God, the Prophet Muhammad and the 180 million people of Pakistan.
In Lahore, the cricketer turned opposition political leader Imran Khan offered broad support to Mr. Qadri, calling on the government to resign immediately in favor of a neutral caretaker administration, and announce a date for elections.
But the mechanism for choosing a caretaker administration was agreed by the government and opposition last year, as part of a constitutional amendment that enjoyed bipartisan support — even though that mechanism does not currently include Mr. Khan because he boycotted the last election. “These kinds of demands are the product of muddled thinking about what constitutes neutrality,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a former foreign ministry official.
The latest developments raise doubts about the government’s ability to make headway in Pakistan’s efforts to achieve stability as a democracy. Its five-year term of office ends in mid-March and elections are due to take place within the following 60 days, which, if they take place, would mark the first such transfer of power in Pakistan’s history.
But worries that Mr. Qadri, or the court, could derail that transition grew as events unfolded on Tuesday.
Still, theories about a conspiracy linking the preacher, the judges and the military are not easy to reconcile. Over the past year Justice Chaudhry has openly clashed with top generals, as part of his court’s bid to carve out its independence from both civilian and military rulers.
Justice Chaudhry has stressed that his court will not act as a rubber stamp to military rule, as it has in the past, and earlier on Tuesday he reportedly stressed the importance of holding elections by mid-May.
It was not certain that the events were linked. Some analysts said that in ordering the prime minister’s 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 Mr. Qadri in order to pursue its longstanding grudge against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Whatever the motivations, the court’s actions added to the chaos in Pakistan, with the stock market dropping 3 percent after word of the court’s order came down.
In its order issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau, a government body that investigates graft, to arrest Mr. Ashraf and 15 other senior current or former officials, including a former finance minister and a former finance y mid-May.