ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Barely a year after fears of a possible military coup plunged Pakistani politics into chaos, the country is in crisis again — this time besieged on multiple fronts by forces that threaten the civilian government just a few months ahead of elections.
An enigmatic preacher is camped before the gates of Parliament with thousands of followers, demanding the government’s immediate ouster. The top court Tuesday suddenly ordered the arrest of the prime minister. Violence is surging, with militants stepping up deadly attacks against both government forces and religious minorities. And relations with India have dipped, after ill-tempered border skirmishes in which soldiers on both sides were killed.
As it is all unfolding, the country’s powerful military command, long at odds with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, is in sphinx mode. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and his commanders have maintained a cool distance from the unfolding political chaos, their silence stoking speculation about whether the military’s days of political intervention are really, as it claims, over.
“It’s the silence of the legions that is unnerving," said Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament.
More than anything else, there is a sense that gears are again shifting in Pakistan, in a direction few dare to predict — bad news for Zardari’s government, of course, but also potentially for U.S. interests, which see stability in Pakistan as crucial to a smooth withdrawal in Afghanistan next year, as well as a guarantor of the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
“There’s a sense that things are snowballing — hard to predict in any way," said Cyril Almeida, a senior writer at Dawn newspaper.
The chief catalyst of this jolting change comes in the form of a 61-year-old preacher, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, who catapulted himself into the political limelight less than a month ago and now finds himself issuing ultimatums to Zardari from inside a bulletproof container within view of the soaring presidential residence.
A giant rally in Lahore last month signaled the start of Qadri’s assault on Pakistan’s political classes, which he derides as incompetent and irredeemably corrupt — a resonant message in a country of high unemployment and crippling electricity shortages. He drove home his message with an intensive television advertising campaign, paid for with generous amounts of money, the origins of which he has not fully explained.