In strictly legal terms, Yusuf Raza Gilani stood no chance. Back in April, the Supreme Court had convicted the Pakistani Prime Minister of contempt. The government had not complied with a 2009 order asking it to seek the reopening in Switzerland of money laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The court did not accept the explanation that the government had deferred to the President’s constitutional immunity. Pakistan’s Constitution is clear that conviction leads to disqualification from the National Assembly, but instead of pronouncing on this in its order convicting him, the Court left it to the Speaker to take the decision on this aspect. The Speaker — a fellow stalwart of the Pakistan People’s Party — refused to disqualify the Prime Minister, and just as predictably, his ruling was contested in the Supreme Court. Tuesday’s order disqualifying Mr. Gilani as a legislator “with all consequences”, specifying that this meant he had also ceased to be Prime Minister, was thus not unforeseen. In a situation in which an elected government and a resurgent Supreme Court are both trying to redefine their institutional boundaries, a clash was inevitable. The troubling question, however, is whether this is something more than just democratic jousting over powers between the judiciary and the executive. The single-mindedness with which the Supreme Court has conducted its battles with the government has led to accusations of a “coup by other means”. Also, coming in the wake of a controversy over a property tycoon’s allegations that he paid vast sums to the Chief Justice’s son, the disqualification carries a hint of vengeance.

The PPP has likened the disqualification order to the infamous “judicial murder” of its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, calling attention to how no Prime Minister from the party has been allowed to complete a single term in office. The oblique suggestion is that the Court is acting as a proxy of the military. The crucial difference though is that then, a military dictator had already placed the country under martial law. This time around, the Prime Minister’s disqualification does not affect the government; the party will simply replace him. Indeed, the court has directed the President “to take necessary steps under the Constitution to ensure continuation of the democratic process through [the] parliamentary system of government in the country”. Elections are just a half year away. The government could well decide to hold them early, on the calculation that Mr. Gilani’s ouster will help draw sympathy votes. What is important in the present crisis is that the possibility of a democratic transition to the next government has not been erased.

More In: Editorial | Opinion