With the future of Pakistan's prime minister, president, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice up in the air this year, there was little doubt that 2013 would be rife with intrigue in Islamabad. The country, after all, has witnessed three military coups in its 65-year history. And Pakistan has yet to see a transition of power between two successive democratically elected governments.
Today, many Pakistani observers, including human rights activist Asma Jahangir, suspect a surreptitious putsch is afoot, aided by the judiciary and a mysterious cleric-politician, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who suddenly returned to Pakistan last month from Canada. The Sufi cleric has now led three large anti-government rallies, buttressed by expensive television advertising and a professional social media campaign.
The goal, these observers claim, is the implementation of what's known in Pakistan as the Bangladesh model -- a reference to that country's army and Supreme Court-backed, technocrat government, which governed from 2007 to 2009 and was tasked with correcting the mess caused by the two dominant political parties. In Pakistan's case, those two parties would be President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Qadri has only heightened this suspicion by calling for the inclusion of both the army and the judiciary in selecting a caretaker government to oversee the elections expected this spring. There has been no visible public demand for including these actors in the process. And it has no justification in the Pakistani constitution, which only requires general elections to take place under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government chosen by the government and opposition, or by the federal election commission.
On Jan. 15, Qadri's plan appeared to be taking shape when Pakistani television channels broke from live coverage of his rally to report the breaking news of the Supreme Court's apparent order for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's arrest. It seemed perfectly choreographed: Qadri's followers erupted in celebration, and the cleric asked them to perform the namaz-e shukrana, or prayer of gratitude. For a moment, Qadri appeared to be another Khomeini -- returning from the West with an effortless victory over the ancien régime.
Alas, for Qadri -- who seems to be inspired by the late Iranian leader's "cleansing" of the Pahlavi system -- it was too good to be true. The Supreme Court's order turned out to be not nearly so bold: It was simply a notification that gives the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a federal anti-corruption body, the ability to arrest the prime minister, who is accused of receiving kickbacks from companies involved in rental power projects, if necessary, in relation to the ongoing investigation. While the Supreme Court could push the NAB chief in that direction, the bureau could also employ delaying tactics. The government, in any case, has the ability to survive with or without the current prime minister till its tenure ends in mid-March.
The implementation of the "Bangladesh model" also faces another hurdle: It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would ally with the army or any other non-democratic forces. Though it has legitimized military interventions in the past, the court has demonstrated its vigilance since 2007 in guarding its autonomy, and shown hostility to both civilian and military authoritarianism. This, after all, is a court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was deposed twice in 2007 for challenging military ruler Pervez Musharraf.