ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's leaders received a powerful one-two punch Tuesday as the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister in a corruption case and a firebrand cleric led thousands of protesters in a second day of anti-government demonstrations in the capital.
The events set the stage for renewed political crisis in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic militants and efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan. They sparked accusations that Pakistan's top judge and powerful generals were working to destabilize the government ahead of parliamentary elections expected in the spring, and possibly delay the vote.
The upcoming elections would mark the first time a civilian government completed a full five-year term and transferred power through the ballot box. Past governments have been toppled in military coups or dismissed by presidents allied with top generals.
A coup isn't expected this time around, but there is widespread unhappiness within the military, judiciary and the public about the government's performance at a time when the country is plagued by high unemployment, rampant energy shortages and frequent attacks by Islamic militants.
Many claim the country's politicians are more interested in lining their pockets through corrupt dealings than addressing problems facing Pakistani citizens. That perception is likely to be reinforced by the Supreme Court's order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.
The court ruling relates to a case involving private power stations set up to provide electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. The judges are investigating allegations that the bidding process was marred by corruption. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered the arrest of 16 people involved in the case, including Ashraf, who previously served as minister for water and power, according to a written court order.
An adviser to the prime minister, Fawad Chaudhry, said any attempt to arrest the prime minister would be unconstitutional since he enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office.
"We consider it a judicial coup, and it is part of a greater plan to derail democracy," Chaudhry said.
The Supreme Court clashed repeatedly with the government during the past year, especially over an old corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari in Swiss court. Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted Ashraf's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, of contempt of court for refusing to reopen the case and ousted him from office.
The judges pressured Ashraf as well, and the government finally agreed to the court's demand to ask the Swiss to pursue the case -- which Swiss authorities have said privately they have no intention of doing because Zardari enjoys immunity while in office.
Some observers have accused the chief justice of harassing the government because of bad blood between him and Zardari. Others believe the judges are working in concert with the country's generals, although the court has pressured the army over alleged abuses as well.
"Tuesday's developments at the Supreme Court are enough to believe that the judiciary and the establishment are working together against the government," said Chaudhry, the prime minister's adviser.
Many suspect the military is also behind Tahir-ul-Qadri, a 61-year-old cleric who returned from Canada last year and has rocketed to national prominence with a mass movement against Pakistan's leaders.
He led an estimated 30,000 supporters Tuesday in a second day of protests in Islamabad to press for the removal of the government, which he criticized as corrupt and incompetent. Political leaders condemned his demands as unconstitutional.
It was unclear whether the Supreme Court's order and Qadri's rally were connected. But some speculated it was a scripted plan by the chief justice and the cleric to strike at their opponents in the government, with the support of the army.
"There is a connection, and it is very obvious. The boots are behind it," Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jehangir said, referring to the military.
Qadri's message has galvanized many Pakistanis who say the government has brought them only misery. But critics fear Qadri is bent on derailing the country's upcoming elections at the behest of army by pushing for a military-backed caretaker administration -- allegations denied by the cleric.
Those concerns could intensify following a fiery speech he delivered to protesters, condemning the country's politicians as corrupt thieves and lavishing praise on both the Supreme Court and the military.
He said only two institutions in Pakistan, the judiciary and the armed forces, were "performing their duties to fulfill the needs of the people."
The cleric spoke from inside a bulletproof vehicle parked several hundred meters (yards) from parliament. He faced hundreds of police in riot gear who formed a human barrier against thousands of demonstrators packed into the main avenue running through Islamabad. Many waved green and white Pakistani flags and cheered as Qadri spoke.
The protest has been largely peaceful since demonstrators set off from Lahore on Sunday, but underlying tension was evident early Tuesday when police and protesters clashed hours after Qadri arrived in Islamabad and addressed his supporters. Demonstrators threw rocks at a vehicle, while others held up bullet casings and an empty tear gas canister.
Qadri called on his supporters to stay in the streets until the national and provincial governments were dissolved. Many demonstrators, who slept in the street Monday night under warm blankets to ward off the cold, said they would remain as long as the cleric asks.
"This system has rotted. It has to change," said 29-year-old Iftikhar Ahmad, who traveled to Islamabad from the central city of Sargodha. "I am going to stay here ... even if I die."