Islamabad: The next 24 hours could be decisive for Pakistan. The Supreme Court has begun hearing a critical case on the issue of re-opening of graft charges against President Asif Ali Zardari, and it might have the last word on the survival of the embattled civilian government, which has been in a public confrontation with the country's powerful military in recent days.
In grey, rainy Islamabad today, it is not a military coup but a constitutional coup that is being talked about and, analysts say, events of this make or break Monday could lead up to early elections. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, the man at the centre of things, said yesterday, "We never said that I will be the Prime minister for 5 years. I never said that. However, I said that Parliament will complete its term and people have elected parliament for five years."
The Pakistan Parliament is expected to vote today on a pro-democarcy resolution moved by Mr Gilani, who has positioned it not as a trust vote for his government, but as a "democracy versus dictatorship" vote. Opposition leaders like Imran Khan have said they are against the Zardari government, but also firmly against allowing a military coup.
But all eyes are first on the hearing of the 17-member Supreme Court bench, which has ordered the annulment of a controversial law, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which grants amnesty to senior politicians. Charges of corruption against President Zardari were closed under the Ordinance and the court had warned last week that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could be disqualified and that action could also be taken against President Zardari if the government kept defying its orders on the issue. In a scathing attack, it had said that Mr Gilani "may not be an honest person on account of his not being honest to the oath of his office" and had set the government a deadline of today to explain its plans.
Mr Gilani has so far refused to blink. Both on the Supreme Court matter and in his government's stand-off with the military, brought on by what is being called the memogate scandal. American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, who was expected to testify before a judicial commission, has delayed his trip home. Mr Ijaz's lawyers say he is being threatened. He has applied for a visa in Switzerland. He will not be in Pakistan before January 25, where he is expected to testify in the Supreme Court. Mr Ijaz claims to have carried a secret memo to Washington from Mr Zardari's representatives, asking for help to avert a military coup, soon after the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The government denies that memo. Last week, matters came to a head with Mr Gilani and the military exchanging strong words in public, amid fears of yet another military coup in Pakistan. The military warned that Prime Minister comments could pose "grievous consequences for the country" after the latter told the Chinese media that the chiefs of the army and main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had acted "an unconstitutional and illegal" manner while making submissions to the Supreme Court on the scandal.
As the military huddled, there were fears of a military coup, but those fears ebbed by the end of the week as there were attempts to ensure that Pakistan came back from the brink. Both President Zardari and Mr Gilani met Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani over the weekend.
With the Army Chief by his side, Mr Gilani described the armed forces as a "pillar of nation's resilience and strength" and lauded their services in the defence of the country. But on Sunday he refused to take back what he had said about the Army and ISI on their deposition in the memogate matter, asserting he was responsible only to Pakistan Parliament.
"I am answerable to Parliament. And if somebody has any complaint, I will not answer any individual. I am answerable to Parliament and whenever Parliament asks, I will put my views before it," Mr Gilani said.