Are Pakistan's military and courts gearing up for another assault on a fledgling democracy?

There are worries that the democratic process will be replaced with an unelected cabinet

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It was like déjà vu, all over again. Less than a year after Pakistan’s Supreme Court sacked one prime minister, it appears to have trained its guns on his successor.

Last June, the Supreme Court sacked Yousuf Raza Gilani after he refused to write a letter to Swiss authorities urging them to reopen old corruption cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. Raja Pervez Ashraf, the current occupant of the prime minister’s residence, didn’t wish for the same fate, and wrote the letter. It hasn’t helped him.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Mr Ashraf was implicated in a power project scam from his less than glorious days as energy-starved Pakistan’s Minister for Water and Power.

The scandal had been a subject of the court’s proceedings for many months now. What many observers question is the timing, and what appears to be the determination of the court to weaken the sitting government just a few months ahead of historic elections. The polls will be the first time that Pakistan’s electorate will have an opportunity to successfully vote out a civilian government and decide who replaces it.

The ruling came as a large crowd massed in Islamabad, led by Tahir ul-Qadri, a charismatic cleric. Dr Qadri, noted for his taste in extravagant rhetoric and headgear, is demanding the government quit. Incensed, he says, by a civilian democracy that is high on corruption and low on governance, he would like a caretaker government to take over. The new set-up should have the blessing of the army and the judiciary, he added.

The script is wearily familiar to Pakistanis. During the 1990s, successive democratic governments were heaved out of office for various charges of alleged corruption. The pressure was applied from behind a thin veil by powerful generals.

Dr Qadri denies the military establishment backs him. But the rhetoric, with its enthusiasm for the state and contempt for democracy, chimes neatly with their long-standing views. Many also wonder about his suspiciously well-funded campaign.

The fear is that Pakistan’s fledgling democracy will be aborted through a “soft coup” mere months before the election, expected in May.

There are worries that the democratic process will be replaced with an unelected cabinet of technocrats, chosen by the military and the judiciary, as Dr Qadri wishes.

The court’s decision is seen as little to do with the niceties of the law. It is fundamentally about politics. In particular, unelected and unaccountable individuals, on the streets and in the courts, deciding that it is they, and not the people of Pakistan, who know what’s best for the country.

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