Pakistanis fill a plaza in Islamabad where they listened to firebrand cleric… (T. Mughal / European Pressphoto…)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Tahirul Qadri, the fiery Islamic cleric leading a large antigovernment protest in the heart of the capital, was in the middle of a speech denouncing President Asif Ali Zardari's administration when an aide interrupted him with news.
The Supreme Court, Qadri was told, had just ordered the arrest of Zardari's prime minister on corruption charges. As he relayed the news to the crowd Tuesday, legions of Pakistanis filling a plaza about 500 yards from the parliament exploded in a yelp of joy. Many danced in the streets. Others embraced, tears streaming down their cheeks.
"My happiness is beyond words," said Ghulam Nabi, a 28-year-old laborer from Lahore. "We thank God for giving us this victory."
For demonstrators, the ruling served as validation of Qadri's message that Pakistan's current government is corrupt and incompetent, and cannot be trusted to oversee national elections this spring. But for Zardari's ruling party and many observers, the ruling heightened suspicion that Qadri's protest is being engineered behind the scenes by a powerful entity, perhaps the military, with the possible involvement of the judiciary.
"It looks like the Supreme Court is part of this intrigue," said Asma Jehangir, a human rights activist and former Supreme Court Bar Assn. president. "This isn't coincidence. Look at the timing. I believe the Supreme Court's moral authority has vanished."
Speaking to a Pakistani television channel, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said, "This decision by the Supreme Court doesn't look like a coincidence."
The order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in connection with a scandal from his days as water and power minister broadsides Zardari's government at the worst possible time, as he struggles to withstand pressure on his administration created by Qadri's populist movement.
An estimated 40,000 Pakistanis unhappy with Zardari continued to take part in Qadri's sit-in protest Tuesday, and many who were interviewed said they would stay put until the parliament was dissolved and Zardari stepped down, demands Qadri made Monday after leading a long caravan of demonstrators from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad.
Zardari's inability to remedy a host of ills, from crippling power outages to militant attacks, is cited by demonstrators as a prime reason why they joined the sit-in. Voters have the choice of electing a new government in May, but Qadri contends the electoral system is weighted unfairly toward the two most powerful parties.
The system requires the appointment of a caretaker government during the run-up to the election, and leaves the choice of appointees to Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, the PML-N.
Qadri has said Pakistan's powerful military should be involved in the appointment, a remark that has led many observers to speculate that the country's security establishment is behind Qadri's movement. Both Qadri and the military deny that.
Until Tuesday, Zardari's team had tried to appear confident that Qadri's movement wasn't large enough to effect change and would eventually wither. Qadri fell far short of his goal of rallying 1 million Pakistanis for the protest march.
The Supreme Court ruling, however, put Zardari's party on the defensive. Party leaders in the coalition running the parliament said they would meet Tuesday night to discuss strategy.
"We were right that [Qadri's movement] is an effort to derail democracy," said Sharjeel Memon, a PPP stalwart and information minister for Sindh province. "What's happening now is not good for democracy."
For more than a year, the high court has been investigating Ashraf's role in the issuance of licenses to so-called rental power plants, a short-term project that was supposed to help solve the country's power shortage. The government signed three- to five-year contracts with relatively small private power stations, essentially renting them while it worked on building larger plants.
The effort did little to alleviate the country's power troubles, however, and wasted millions of dollars in government money.
The corruption allegations against Ashraf involve purported kickbacks related to bidding for the rental plants, which took place while Ashraf was water and power minister from March 2008 to February 2011.
Ashraf was appointed prime minister in June to replace Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was forced from office that month by the Supreme Court after he was convicted of contempt for ignoring the court's order to revive an old corruption case against Zardari.
Many analysts at the time warned that Ashraf's appointment was risky, given the power plant scandal hanging over him. The episode earned Ashraf the nickname "Raja Rental" in the Pakistani media.
The Supreme Court order also seeks the arrest of several other officials suspected of being linked to the scandal.
It remains unclear how Zardari's government will respond. Gilani remained in office after he was convicted of contempt in April 2012, and stepped down only when the high court ordered his dismissal weeks later.
Deep animosity has for years tainted the relationship between Zardari's government and the judiciary, led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The feud dates to the early days of Zardari's presidency, when he balked at reinstating Chaudhry as chief justice. Chaudhry had been ousted by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's leader, in 2007.
Zardari reportedly feared that Chaudhry would allow old corruption charges against him to proceed. After intense political and public pressure, Zardari relented and reinstated the judge.