The ruling escalated the sense of urgency surrounding a high-stakes political crisis. The corruption case, which has percolated for more than two years, is just one of various threats to the embattled elected government in a nation that has been ruled by the military for half its existence.
The government is also engaged in a public clash with the army over allegations that civilian leaders were behind an unsigned memo that asked for Pentagon help to avert a military coup last year. The government denies the accusation, and Gilani has defiantly criticized the army. The army, for its part, warned last week that such critiques could bring “grievous consequences” to Pakistan.
With the capital saturated by rumors of a potential military coup, Gilani sought last week to shore up support in parliament, which he challenged to make a choice between “democracy and dictatorship.” On Monday night, the lower house approved a resolution expressing confidence in democracy — and, by extension, the government.
The political drama is further destabilizing this nuclear-armed nation, which is also grappling with more existential problems, including a failing economy and violent Islamist militancy.
The dispute that played out in court Monday revolves around a defunct investigation by Swiss prosecutors into graft allegations against Zardari. The court has repeatedly ordered the Pakistani government to ask Swiss authorities to reopen the case.
The government argues that the partisan judiciary, quietly prodded by the military, has embarked on a witch hunt with the goal of ousting Zardari. Analysts say the government has done itself few favors by repeatedly trying to delay the corruption case, giving the impression it views itself as above the law.
Last week, the court admonished Gilani for not moving on the corruption case, laid out six possible legal options and ordered the government to argue its case Monday. But instead of offering a defense, the attorney general said he had received no instructions from his superiors. The court, clearly frustrated, said it had no option but to initiate contempt-of-court proceedings.
“They’re even refusing to engage with the court in presenting legal arguments,” said Babar Sattar, a lawyer who writes a newspaper column on legal issues. “That is exceptionally unbecoming behavior from the government.”
Gilani announced late Monday that he would appear in court on Thursday as ordered. In a statement, he said, the government did “not want any confrontation with any institution, including the courts.”
At the hearing, Sattar said, Gilani could apologize and agree to reopen the Zardari case — an option the government has consistently refused. Gilani could also present an argument explaining why he does not believe he is in contempt, but the court appears likely to disagree, Sattar said.
With senate elections approaching and calls for an early general election, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, appears to have decided to close ranks around Zardari, even if it means risking other key figures.
An aide to Gilani, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the party will continue to refuse to reopen the Zardari graft case and is “mentally ready” to nominate a new prime minister. Together with its coalition allies, it has the numbers to do so.
“That’s their strategy: Let’s fight it out, and if we win, we retain the power, and perhaps we go to the senate elections with that moral victory,” said Raza Rumi, a columnist for the Express-Tribune, an English-language newspaper. “If not, we go down as martyrs.”
Zardari met Monday evening with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Khalid Shameem Wynne, setting off speculation that Wynne was urging Zardari to cooperate with the Supreme Court or, conversely, that Zardari was seeking the support of Wynne — who outranks army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani — in the government-military standoff.
That followed a meeting on Saturday between Zardari and Kayani, which was depicted as a display of peacemaking.
The Supreme Court is also investigating the origins of the memo delivered last year to the Pentagon, and its hearings continued Monday. Mansoor Ijaz, the Pakistani American entrepreneur who brought the memo to light, was expected to testify but did not appear. His attorneys said he did not yet have a visa.
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.