ISLAMABAD — Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is preparing to face down the country's hostile courts as a clash of institutions pushes Pakistan toward a political breaking point.
The Supreme Court threatened Monday to jail Gilani by issuing a contempt of court notice against him for refusing to revive a nearly decade-old corruption case against the country's president, Asif Ali Zardari. The court ordered Gilani to appear Thursday to answer the charge, for which he could be disqualified from office if he's convicted.
Pakistan's U.S.-allied government is battling the courts and the armed forces, both of which seem determined to oust Gilani's Pakistan People's Party from power, while the political opposition is pressing for early elections. Analysts describe the military's effort as a "soft coup" that could push Pakistan back into the uncertainty of the 1990s, the last period of democratic rule here, when four elected governments were dismissed before their terms were completed.
Rebuffing rumors that he'd quit, Gilani told parliament that he'd appear in court Thursday "out of respect for the institution." But party officials said he wouldn't comply with the court's order to pursue corruption charges against Zardari, who the party has argued enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution — which the courts are challenging.
Never miss a local story.
Separately, the ruling coalition managed Monday to win a de facto parliamentary vote of confidence, which it had tried to paint as a resolution supporting democracy over a return to military rule. But the coalition failed to gain the support of the opposition, which rejected the resolution as a ploy by the party to gain leverage against the courts.
Pakistan's turbulent history of judicial and military action against elected governments — including multiple court-sanctioned coups and one prime minister who was tried and executed — hangs over the current crisis. It's thrust the political system into chaos even as the country faces energy shortages, fiscal troubles and calls by the United States for greater cooperation in ending the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
"If there is no democracy, everything will end. If there's no democracy, we'll all be swept away together, not just some," Gilani warned parliament. "We have to protect democracy. We have struggled for democracy and my leader gave her life for democracy," he went on, referring to the former party leader and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife, who was assassinated in December 2007.
The opposition walked out of parliament after the vote in protest and accused the government of using the parliament as a cover to protect itself.
"By hiding behind parliament, the government is attacking another institution," said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the leader of the parliamentary opposition. "There is no danger to democracy."
At issue with the Supreme Court is a money-laundering case against Zardari in Switzerland, of which he was convicted in absentia in 2003. The Pakistani government persuaded Switzerland to drop the case, but since 2009 the Pakistani courts have ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities to revive it, which the government has refused to do on the grounds that Zardari is shielded by immunity.
As the head of the government, the decision to send the letter rests with Gilani. The court sees his refusal to do so as an act of contempt, and if he's convicted on that charge, or any other criminal offense, he'd lose his seat in parliament and therefore be unable to serve as prime minister.
Given Gilani's refusal — and the fact that the government's lawyer didn't respond Monday when asked why the prime minister hadn't complied with the order — the court said it had "no option" but to initiate contempt proceedings.
Many senior members of the Pakistan People's Party, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the government wouldn't write the letter no matter what the consequences were. The party feels a strong sense of victimization; its first leader, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's father, was hanged in 1979. The badge of martyrdom is one of its central appeals to its supporters, and analysts say that punishment by the courts might only add to its claim of persecution.
The government also is fighting a second incendiary court case, the so-called Memogate scandal, in which it's accused of treason for allegedly attempting to plot with Washington against the armed forces. The chief accuser in that case, American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, failed to show up in court Monday. His lawyer promised that he'd appear next week.
The case, which pits the government in court against the military, looks likely to collapse without the testimony of Ijaz. The businessman claims that he acted on behalf of Zardari's government when he passed a memo to American military officials that offered to rein in the Pakistani military in exchange for greater U.S. support for the civilian government.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.