Pakistan's government faced a constitutional threat Monday from the Supreme Court, which began contempt proceedings against the prime minister for failing to reopen a corruption investigation against the president.
The court's action coincides with a rift between the elected, civilian-led government and the South Asian country's military, which has carried out three coups since Pakistan won its independence in 1947.
What's more, the court's action has raised doubts about the stability of the government in Islamabad, a key U.S. ally but one with which the Obama administration has had a tempestuous relationship during the past year.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani will appear before the court Thursday to explain his refusal to comply with its orders. He could face up to six months in prison, lose his seat in parliament and be disqualified from holding office if he is convicted.
Mr. Gilani's government received some good news later Monday, when the majority of the lawmaking National Assembly approved a pro-democracy resolution.
Mr. Gilani told lawmakers that he respects the courts, but that neither the army nor the judiciary can derail democracy in Pakistan.
"The army and the judiciary, they both have to protect democracy in Pakistan," he said in a televised speech. "They can't remove democracy. They can't pack up the system."
Pakistan's most recent coup occurred in 1999, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf led a bloodless takeover of the government.
Last week, the Supreme Court warned Mr. Gilani that it could dismiss him for defying its orders in a corruption investigation against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The court has focused on a corruption probe by the Swiss government against Mr. Zardari that was stalled in 2008 after an amnesty gave Pakistani politicians, including the president, immunity from such investigations.
Pakistani Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who clashed with Mr. Musharraf when he was president, also has had a rocky relationship with Mr. Zardari.
The confrontation between the judiciary and the government has erupted at a time of tense relations between Mr. Gilani and the army.
The army warned the prime minister last week of "serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences" after he criticized army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, in connection with the so-called Memogate scandal.
Mr. Gilani responded by firing his defense secretary, a former army officer and an ally of Gen. Kayani. The prime minister described the standoff with the army as a choice between "democracy and dictatorship."
The Supreme Court's actions coincide with its decision to set up a commission to investigate Memogate.
The scandal involves an unsigned memo that purportedly sought U.S. help to check the Pakistani military's power and prevent a coup. A Pakistani-American businessman said last year that he received the memo from a Pakistani official to deliver to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Pakistani government has denied any involvement with the memo.
The timing of the court's action against Mr. Gilani has raised eyebrows in Washington and Islamabad, coming more than two years after it struck down the National Reconciliation Order, which gave thousands of politicians, including the president, amnesty from corruption probes.
"The order that provided immunity to Mr. Zardari from these charges was struck down by the Supreme Court over two years ago, so why is the court pressing the issue now?" said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The court does not have the power to impeach the president. That power rests with the parliament, where Mr. Zardari's Pakistan People's Party holds the majority.
In parliament, Mr. Gilani praised the passage of the pro-democracy resolution.
The resolution's passage is good news for the government, Kamran Shafi, a columnist with Pakistan's Express Tribune, said in a phone interview from Islamabad. "It should strengthen the hands of the government," he said.
Meanwhile, Mansoor Ijaz, the businessman in the Memogate scandal, failed to appear Monday before the inquiry commission.
Mr. Ijaz's attorney said his client does not yet have a visa to visit Pakistan and faces a threat to his life, but will appear before the commission on Jan. 25. The Pakistani army has said it will provide Mr. Ijaz with protection while he is in the country.
Mr. Ijaz has implicated Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, as an architect of the memo. Mr. Haqqani has denied any role in the scandal. But he resigned from his post and returned to Pakistan, where he faces an investigation, and fears for his life.
The inquiry commission also was told that Mr. Haqqani's BlackBerry smartphone, which he allegedly used to correspond with Mr. Ijaz, was lost.
Meanwhile, a prominent Pakistani opposition leader has defended the judiciary's actions against the government.
Imran Khan, the cricketer turned political leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, said Pakistan is heading in a positive direction.
"We have a real chance at change in Pakistan. ... Only change can protect this country," he told an Atlantic Council audience via videoconference Friday.
A recent Gallup Poll found that 62 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said the Supreme Court is not overstepping its mandate. Fourteen percent disagreed.
Mr. Khan's political party has gained support as tensions between the government and army have escalated, and the country's economy has declined.
"What you are seeing is the ongoing clash where the government is trying to protect the corruption of the president ... and on the other hand, you are seeing the Supreme Court trying to live up to the expectations of the people," Mr. Khan said.
"The Supreme Court has given us Pakistanis hope," he added.
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