ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's combative top judge made his most audacious foray into judicial activism yet on Tuesday, firing Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, emptying the Cabinet, and forcing President Asif Ali Zardari to reset his fragile governing coalition.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's order was the culmination of a three-year transformation that has injected the once supine Supreme Court into the heart of Pakistan's power equation. Yet in doing so, Chaudhry has ventured deeply into the political fray, drawing accusations of partisan, even grudge-driven, prosecutions.
"This is a court that is determined to establish itself as a player to be respected and feared,'' said Cyril Almeida, a political analyst with the newspaper Dawn. "First it was elbows out; now it's come out swinging - and it's knocked out the prime minister.''
The true target of Chaudhry's order, though, may have been Zardari. The two men have been at odds since 2009, when Zardari opposed Chaudhry's reinstatement. They have engaged in proxy combat through the courts ever since; indeed, Gilani's dismissal stemmed directly from his refusal to heed court orders to pursue a corruption inquiry against the president.
Tuesday's decision presented a blunt challenge to the president's authority; one critic, the human rights campaigner and lawyer Asma Jahangir, called it a "soft coup.'' And its disruptive effects on his governing Pakistan Peoples Party could lead to a new round of national elections well ahead of their scheduled date next spring.
For Chaudhry, the action also offered a convenient diversion from an awkward turn of events: Less than a week ago, the judge found himself explaining his personal finances in court after a billionaire property developer with close ties to both the Pakistan Peoples Party and the military came out with explosive corruption allegations against his family.
Now, those accusations, which damaged the judge's anticorruption credentials and may have tarnished his populist appeal, are likely to be sidelined amid the political maneuvering over his ruling on Tuesday.
Specialists said the judge's dismissal of Gilani was legally contentious, but regardless, the Pakistan Peoples Party responded with uncharacteristic meekness. The party secretary general, Qamar Zaman Kaira, urged supporters to show "patience and restraint,'' indicating that the government did not want its clash with the court to spill over into street violence, at least for the moment.
Zardari's strategy, said Almeida, the analyst, is to ride out the crises until the elections. "It's a strategy of rolling with the punches, knowing that no rival has the ability to deliver a knockout punch and, in the absence of that, keeping your head down,'' he said.
Gilani has, to a large degree, found himself caught in the crossfire between Zardari and Chaudhry. His dismissal stems from longstanding court demands that he write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting that they reopen a dormant corruption investigation into Zardari's finances in that country dating to the 1990s. Gilani has refused to do so, arguing that as president, Zardari has immunity from prosecution. After two years of delaying tactics, the court's patience snapped last January when it issued Gilani an ultimatum: write to the Swiss authorities or face contempt charges. Gilani chose contempt.
The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, welcomed the Supreme Court decision. "This is real accountability,'' he told Geo television, calling for early elections. "Otherwise,'' he said, "this government will embark on a path of destruction.''
Early Wednesday, Pakistani television reported that the Pakistan Peoples Party would nominate Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a longtime Zardari loyalist and departing minister for textiles, to replace Gilani. For his part, Zardari canceled a planned visit to Russia to contain the crisis. Officials said he would reveal the party's next step on Wednesday.