ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan plunged into a political crisis Tuesday after the country's top court ordered the arrest of the prime minister just as a protest of unprecedented size hit Islamabad, demanding the dismissal of the government.
The two events were not obviously connected, but with the current government's term in office ending in weeks, and the country prone to military takeovers, many said the coincidence suggested that some kind of coup was taking place. In Pakistan's history, no democratically elected government has ever been succeeded by another democratically elected one.
"This is the establishment working," said Fawad Chaudhry, a special adviser to Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, whom the Supreme Court ordered arrested in a bribery case. "They want to dismiss the government and put in a long-term interim setup."
Mr. Ashraf was not arrested, and Law Minister Farooq Naek told reporters that only one government agency, the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption watchdog, had the power to make such arrests.
But even the threat of a move against the prime minister unnerved a city already on edge by the arrival of tens of thousands of protesters led by a charismatic religious cleric, Tahir ul-Qadri.
Mr. Qadri's estimated 50,000 protesters, who arrived in the capital Monday night, occupied the wide road that runs the length of Islamabad. In a speech, Mr. Qadri called for the dissolution of the current Parliament and demanded that the army have a say in the selection of an interim government that would oversee election of a new government. He said many current elected officials should be banned from the balloting. He ordered his followers to remain in the city until his demands are met.
The military made no sign that it supported Mr. Qadri's demands, but it also made no effort to prevent his protest march from entering the city -- feeding rumors that he ultimately was doing the army's bidding, and that his true agenda is to prevent elections for a new government from taking place.
"We are here just to save our country from collapse and complete ruin," Mr. Qadri told the crowd. "There is no real democracy, there is no true electoral process."
He heaped praise on the military and said its sacrifice of soldiers in fighting terrorism had been wasted by the government. "We have become a threat to our own country, to the region, to the world," he said.
The five-year term of the current government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, ends in mid-March. Under Pakistan's constitution, a caretaker government should then be appointed to oversee elections to select a new government within two months.
Democracy remains fragile in Pakistan, however. The country has been led primarily by military governments that came to power in coups, most recently when Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Gen. Musharraf ruled until he resigned in 2008, and the current government took office after a bloody election campaign that included the assassination of Mr. Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto.
Critics say Mr. Zardari's tenure has taken graft to new heights while failing to tackle basic problems, including terrorism and an acute shortage of gas and electricity. The Supreme Court repeatedly has gone after Mr. Zardari, but so far he has been shielded by constitutional immunity granted the president.
Political analysts believe that the army does not want to impose martial law but may favor a government of hand-picked civilians.
Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, said it would be "extremely naive" to believe that the Supreme Court's arrest order and the protest were coincidences. "Either the military is complicit with the protesters, or the protesters are enabling the military, by demanding a subversion of the constitutional order. And the court is triggering a constitutional crisis, just as Qadri makes his demands, with tens of thousands of people massed in the capital," Mr. Hasan said.
Word of the court's arrest order against Mr. Ashraf came just as Mr. Qadri was firing up the crowd in Islamabad. "Half our job is done. We'll do the other half tomorrow," he boomed over the loudspeakers. "Victory, victory."
For more than a year, the high court has been investigating Mr. Ashraf's role in the issuance of licenses to so-called rental power plants, a short-term project that was supposed to help solve the country's power shortage. The government signed three- to five-year contracts with relatively small private power stations, essentially renting them while it worked on building larger plants. The effort did little to alleviate the country's power troubles, however, and wasted millions of dollars in government money.
The corruption allegations against Mr. Ashraf involve purported kickbacks related to bidding for the rental plants, which took place while he was water and power minister between March 2008 and February 2011. Mr. Ashraf was appointed prime minister last June to replace Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was forced from office that month by the Supreme Court after he was convicted of contempt for ignoring the court's order to revive an old corruption case against Mr. Zardari.
A new military coup would be a major complication for the Obama administration, which would be barred by U.S. law from providing aid to the Pakistani military if it took power. The United States, however, will need the help of Pakistan's military to ease its exit from Afghanistan, a task that President Barack Obama has said will be completed next year.
Los Angeles Times contributed.