A file picture dated Sept. 18, 2012 shows Pakistan's Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf leaving the Supreme Court after a hearing, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Ashraf for alleged involvement in corruption during his tenure as minister for water and power. (T. MUGHAL/EPA)

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in a three-year-old bribery case, deepening a political crisis that has been spurred by anti-corruption demonstrations led by a populist cleric.

The court ordered the arrest of Ashraf within 24 hours. Some observers said the order, if implemented, could derail elections planned for this year.

Political analysts said the development raises the prospect that Pakistan’s powerful military leadership could establish a caretaker government and then call for a delay in choosing which political party would lead Pakistan for the next five years.

Tahirul Qadri, the cleric leading the protests, wants “to seek military intervention for the removal of the present government,” said noted political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “That is why the timing of the court’s decision is being seen as meaningful.”

It is the second time since June that the Supreme Court has ordered the ouster of a prime minister. Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced from office when he refused to write a letter asking Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani was replaced by Ashraf, who agreed to write the letter.

Now Ashraf is accused of receiving commissions and bribes in deals to build electric power plants while he was minister for water and power in 2010. Ashraf denies the allegations.

The court last year declared that all contracts to establish the power plants were illegal, and it instructed the National Accountability Bureau to take legal action against Ashraf and others responsible for approving the projects. Before the Supreme Court ordered Ashraf’s arrest, however, the anti-corruption agency had refused to proceed against the prime minister.

In addition to the arrest order, the court directed that Ashraf and 15 others accused in the case be placed on Pakistan’s Exit Control List so that they cannot flee the country.

The news was greeted by thunderous applause at the sit-in led by Qadri near the Parliament building. Qadri had earlier demanded the dissolution of Ashraf’s Pakistan People’s Party-led government by 11 a.m.

“Congratulations, congratulations to you all,” Qadri said. “Half of the job is done. I will leave the remaining part of my speech for tomorrow, and the rest of the job will be done tomorrow.”

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told Geo TV, a private news channel, “Many people, including the politicians, lawyers, political activists and others, view the timing of the court’s decision as very significant, and they see its linkage with Dr. Qadri’s protest.”

“The democratic system will remain unharmed,” Kaira said. “We would not allow any damage to the democracy, despite all odds and hurdles.”

Rizvi, the political analyst, said the court “could have delayed the decision about the prime minister’s arrest for a few more days.”

“Now it’s natural to see the linkage of this verdict with the protest.” 

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the court order “enormously” increased the likelihood that Pakistan’s democratically elected government would be dissolved.

“Attempts to regulate politics through judicial hustling have never been fruitful anywhere in the world,” the commission said in a statement. “If nothing else, the judiciary has to weigh the consequences of its decisions on the state whose interest it is supposed to safeguard.”