Siege of Islamabad

Pakistan's domestic political crisis is deepening, with several factors converging to ratchet up the heat on Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf's civilian government. After the attacks on minority Shias in Balochistan, Islamabad had to proclaim governor's rule in the province, even as Canada-returned cleric Tahirul Qadri's march on the capital and sit-in near the parliament on Tuesday culminated in a fresh charter of demands on Wednesday. But the biggest blow to President Asif Ali Zardari and his party's government has been Tuesday's order by the Pakistan Supreme Court, seeking the arrest of the PM in connection with the alleged bribes he accepted while clearing power projects in 2010. These factors now combine to sharpen the political turmoil in the run-up to general elections.

At the centre of the country's internal dynamic is the freshly emboldened Pakistan army. There is a growing conviction in Pakistan's political classes that the Qadri phenomenon is the army's handiwork. Despite its denials, it is difficult to miss the army's fingerprints in the building crisis. Every time the army has taken control of Pakistan's destiny, there has been a strident denunciation of elected civilian rulers as corrupt. The promise of cleaning the Augean stables with a technocratic regime backed by the army is ostensibly what Qadri wants. His fresh demands on Wednesday included the reconstitution of the election commission and the dissolution of the federal and provincial legislatures. Although it is more difficult to see a direct connection between the army and the judiciary — the latter having surprised everyone with its order on the PM's arrest, timed to coincide with Qadri's sit-in — it is undeniable that both are at daggers drawn with Zardari's government. Their separate actions have now reinforced each other in weakening a civilian administration about to complete a full term, a rare feat in Pakistan.

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