ISLAMABAD — A political crisis gripping Pakistan could take a decisive turn Monday when its embattled government appears before the Supreme Court, which is ordering it to reopen a stalled graft probe against the president or face dismissal.
The hearing represents one front in what amounts to an assault on the government by the powerful military, opposition politicians and the Supreme Court. The showdown has all but paralyzed decision making in the nuclear-armed country, and threatens fresh turmoil just as the U.S. wants Islamabad's help in negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The fault line is the same one that has plagued Pakistan since its creation in 1947: an army that can't stomach taking orders from elected politicians, and which has three times seized power in coups. President Asif Ali Zardari's government has given the generals control over foreign and security policy, but the civilian leadership and the top brass have never seen eye-to-eye since Zardari took office in 2008.
Tensions spiked last week over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year offering the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for its help in thwarting a supposed army coup. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani criticized the army for cooperating with a Supreme Court probe into the affair, and has said the standoff is nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship."
Gilani's comments followed a warning from the generals — who were infuriated by the memo — of possible "grievous consequences" ahead.
While the army appears to have little stomach for a coup, government supporters and many independent analysts say the military could be happy to watch the Supreme Court bring down the government for it. The court is a power center in its own right in Pakistan, and has legitimized past military takeovers.
Gilani insisted Sunday the government would see out its term in office, scheduled to end in 2013.
"The parliament was elected for five years and it should complete its term," he told reporters.
Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court has been pressing for investigations into allegations of corruption against Zardari dating back to before his time in office. He and other leading politicians had been protected by a politically inspired amnesty agreed to in 2008 that the court struck down in 2009, leaving him vulnerable.
The government has so far refused to comply, arguing the president has immunity.
Last week, the court threatened to dismiss Zardari and Gilani if they continue to ignore its demands. It ordered government representatives to appear in court Monday to explain what they planned to do. A senior member of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party said this week the government would try to get more time from the court, but it's unclear whether the bench is in a patient mood.
Gilani has called for a "show of confidence" vote in parliament Monday to support of the government, which could provide a symbolic boost to the embattled prime minister.
The court has zeroed in on one corruption investigation taken up by the Swiss government against Zardari that was halted in 2008 when Pakistani prosecutors, acting on the amnesty, told Swiss authorities to drop the case. The court has now ordered the government to contact Swiss authorities to reopen the probe.
Despite the squeeze by the court and the army, many Pakistani analysts say that early elections may yet take the steam out of the assault. Peoples party members privately say such polls are possible, but not until after March, when Senate elections expected to return the party a majority in the upper house are due.
"Once the early polls are announced everything will calm down," said Fakruddin Ebrahim, a former Supreme Court justice and attorney general.
The government is also under fire as a result of the memo sent to Washington.
A separate Supreme Court commission is investigating the note, which some in the media have dubbed "treasonous." Pakistan's envoy to America, Husain Haqqani, was alleged to have masterminded the memo. He resigned late last year, seeking to limit its fallout. If the commission states Zardari knew about the memo, it could open up another avenue for his foes to challenge his rule.