Pakistan was plunged into political turmoil on Tuesday as the country's highest court ordered the arrest of the prime minister on corruption charges, prompting fears of a plot against the government.
President Asif Ali Zardari held crisis talks last night with his coalition partners in an effort to fend off what his supporters described as a "soft coup".
The Supreme Court's announcement was made as thousands of protesters in Islamabad, led by Tahir-ul-Qadri, an Islamist preacher, demanded the government's removal. The timing has led to a heightened sense of crisis in a country that has seen three military coups in its short history.
Fawad Chaudhry, an adviser to the prime minister, said the court's move against Raja Pervez Ashraf was motivated by politics, not justice.
"This is a soft coup," he said. "The announcement came as Qadri was giving a speech which shows it was all part of a plan." He added that the prime minister's legal advisers were confident an arrest could be challenged.
Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan's controversial chief justice, has been accused of meddling in politics before. Ashraf was appointed prime minister last June after the Supreme Court disqualified his predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President Zardari.
The charges against Ashraf date back to his time as minister for water and power from 2008 to 2011 when he is accused of accepting kickbacks as part of a deal to let out electricity plants. He denies any wrongdoing but has been nicknamed Raja Rental ever since.
Imran Khan, the former Pakistan cricket captain who now leads a political party, demanded that President Zardari resign in light of the charges against his prime minister.
"The government should immediately announce new elections and should also announce a date for it," he said.
Western governments have poured billions into Pakistan to shore up its fragile democracy.
Successful elections, due to be held in the spring, would herald the first democratic handover of power in the 65 years since independence. Government insiders say that they have been under near constant threat from both the military and the judiciary.
Suspicions that a new plot to unseat the government was under way were heightened at the end of last year, when Qadri returned from Canada to instigate a series of protests against political corruption. He is demanding that the government give way to a caretaker administration that will address electoral reform. Critics questioned how a little-known cleric, who had managed only a brief stint in Pakistani politics, could suddenly command vast crowds and pay for extensive television advertising, without powerful, secret backers. Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst, said the Supreme Court appeared to be acting in concert with the military and Qadri to influence the formation of a caretaker set-up.
"Look at the timing. It looks like a joint move to bring the government down," he said. "The military is trying to gain influence over who is in the temporary administration."
Protesters in the centre of Islamabad, almost within sight of the national assembly, cheered as news spread of the arrest warrant. Tayyaba Batool, a teacher from Lahore, said: "He has done nothing good during his time as prime minister."