, ISLAMABAD, Feb 14 – Pakistan faced fresh turmoil Sunday after President Asif Ali Zardari and the top judge clashed over court appointments, threatening a showdown between the fragile government and judiciary.
The crisis erupted when Zardari made two senior judicial appointments against the recommendations of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, prompting the Supreme Court to suspend the appointments late Saturday.
A statement from the bench after an unusual evening meeting concluded that Zardari\’s appointments appeared unconstitutional. The move sparked protests and according to analysts sets the stage for possible challenges to the president\’s rule.
The showdown threatens Zardari\’s weak government at a time of mounting US pressure on the nuclear-armed country to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants, viewed as aggravating the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.
"We are heading towards a very serious situation. If it was proved that the president violated the constitution then under article 177 the Supreme Court can disqualify the president," senior lawyer Qazi Anwar told AFP.
Pakistani newspapers expressed concern, with the English-language Dawn labelling the weekend events a "dangerous escalation".
"Historically, clashes between these two institutions have led to disastrous consequences for democracy and constitutional continuity in the country," an editorial said.
Tensions between the government and judiciary have simmered since Zardari took office in 2008 and dithered over an election promise to reinstate Chaudhry after his sacking in 2007 by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari reinstated Chaudhry last March in what was seen as an embarrassing climbdown on the eve of a protest march in favour of the independent-minded and popular chief justice.
Then on December 16, the Supreme Court abolished a decree protecting Zardari and other government figures from prosecution, exposing the president to the possibility of having his immunity and eligibility for office challenged.
Zardari\’s controversial appointments late Saturday put him back on a collision course with Chaudhry.
Zardari issued a decree elevating Lahore\’s top judge Khawaja Sharif to the Supreme Court and named Justice Saqib Nisar to replace him, apparently snubbing Chaudhry\’s recommendation that Nisar get a Supreme Court seat.
It took just hours for the Supreme Court to clip the president\’s wings, suspending the decree and saying the appointment of Sharif "appears to have been issued in violation of the provisions of the Constitution".
The Supreme Court summoned the attorney general to appear at a hearing adjourned until February 18.
About 100 lawyers protested in Pakistan\’s second biggest city Lahore late Saturday, chanting slogans against the president and vowing to support the courts. In the eastern city of Multan about 80 lawyers held a similar rally.
Raja Zafar ul Haq, a senior member of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, an opposition party, said the party would meet to discuss the political crises and labelled Zardari\’s move a "totally wrong decision… ill-advised".
Zardari\’s Pakistan Peoples Party won elections in February 2008 that ended years of military rule, riding to power on a wave of sympathy after the assassination in December 2007 of his wife, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
But his approval ratings have plummeted as economic woes, corruption scandals and an insurgency by Taliban militants grip the nation.
Any political turmoil will also unnerve Pakistan\’s Western allies, who want Islamabad to focus on tackling Islamist militants.
US Vice President Joe Biden warned Wednesday that Pakistan "is not a completely functional democracy in the sense we think about it".
Most analysts believe the only recourse could be for Zardari to execute an embarrassing U-turn.
"Everybody, and the president in particular, must take a deep breath and step back from the precipice," newspaper The News said in a editorial.