As the highest court in Pakistan indicted Prime Minister Raza Gilani for contempt on Monday, the corruption scandal prompted less curiosity than the Supreme Court itself, with speculation growing about the court's motives for dusting off old charges against the ruling party.
The allegations of graft are nothing new. Mr. Gilani now risks six months in jail, and loss of his job, for refusing a court order to reopen an investigation into his ally, President Asif Zardari, nicknamed "Mister 10 Per Cent" for allegations of political profiteering that dogged him since the 1990s.
Pakistanis did not seem bothered by his track record when they voted for Mr. Zardari in 2008. Nothing about the corruption case has changed since then, but two key shifts have altered Pakistan's political landscape.
One is the breakdown of the relationship between Mr. Gilani's party and the Pakistani military. The other is the rise of an independent judiciary that has started delving into the smallest details of Pakistan's governance, and was instrumental in helping bring down the former military-run government.
Either, or both, of these factors could have contributed to the scene in Islamabad when a judge faced down a serving prime minister for the first time, declaring that Mr. Gilani "willfully disobeyed the direction of this court" and ordering a trial that will get under way on Feb. 16.
The immediate effect was to raise questions about how long Mr. Gilani, a soft-spoken troubleshooter, could remain in office. CBS News quoted an unnamed official saying that the embattled politician is "in no mood to step down," but the court proceedings have ratcheted up the pressure. A prominent opposition figure, Imran Khan, who has been flaunting his popularity with a series of huge rallies, called for the Prime Minister's resignation on Monday.
Some analysts say the episode is just another showdown between Pakistan's generals and its elected officials, suggesting that the Supreme Court may be acting at the behest of the military. Others say the traditional two-way struggle for power in Pakistan, between civilian rulers and military officials, now has a new player – a third force emerging in the country's power structure, wearing judicial robes instead of generals' uniforms or the politicians' suits.
Scholars have sometimes referred to Pakistan's flirtation with elected rule as "temporary democracy," because while a series of votes have brought in civilian leaders over the last six decades, the politicians have often been viewed as serving on condition of approval from Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence apparatus. Military coups ousted three civilian governments – in 1958, 1977, and 1999 – and the security services have found other ways of exerting their authority. Mr. Gilani recently spoke out against what he described as military interference in his cabinet's affairs, prompting an army statement that warned of "serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences."
If the Prime Minister's downfall comes in a courtroom, the proceedings will contain a rich irony. The end of the previous military government and rise of Mr. Gilani's party was made possible, in part, by the same judges and lawyers now pursuing charges against him. Members of the legal profession rallied against the former military regime in 2007, prompting hundreds of arrests. One of Mr. Gilani's first acts after taking office the following year was to order all detained judges set free.