Pakistan turmoil not as 'chaotic' as appears - foreign minister

Wed Jan 16, 2013 6:11pm EST

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* Supreme Court ordered arrest of prime minister on Tuesday

* Khar downplays influence of anti-government cleric

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar suggested on Wednesday that the Supreme Court was trying to boost its power by ordering the arrest of the prime minister on corruption allegations, but during a speech in New York she said the situation was not as "chaotic" as it might appear.

Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on Tuesday. In June, Ashraf replaced Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a showdown between the government and the judiciary.

"What looks like an extremely chaotic situation to the foreigners is actually institutions, which have been stemmed for many years by dictatorial regimes in Pakistan ... finding their rightful place," Khar told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"As each of these institutions, whether it's the parliament, or the judiciary, or the others, find their rightful place, there's a tendency to try and enlarge their space," she said.

But when asked whether she thought the Supreme Court had overreached, Khar said: "We have our views on it, but I am not going to share right now."

The arrest order for Ashraf along with a mass protest in the capital, Islamabad, led by Muslim cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, has fueled fears among some politicians that the military was working with the judiciary to force out a civilian leader.

However, the ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has a majority in parliament and lawmakers can elect another prime minister if Ashraf is ousted.

The military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Pakistan's stability, has long regarded the PPP-led government as corrupt, incompetent and unable to prevent the nuclear-armed country from falling apart. But army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics.

The foreign minister downplayed the influence of cleric Qadri, who played a role in backing a military coup in 1999. The fiery orator returned from Canada less than a month ago to lead a call for electoral reforms to bar corrupt politicians from office, which made him an instant hit among disillusioned Pakistanis.

Qadri is camped out near the federal parliament with thousands of supporters and has demanded the government resign. Pakistan's interior minister on Wednesday warned Qadri and his supporters to disperse, saying they were at risk of attack by militants.

"Everybody or anybody who has any credibility has distanced themselves from him by miles," Khar said. "He is a man who currently is becoming a pariah in some ways."

"These large hordes of numbers that we talk about that he has been able to gather are clearly not representative of the 180 million people," she said. "The demands that he is making are all ones which want to derail the democratic process."

Elections are due in a few months. President Asif Ali Zardari hopes his administration will be the first civilian government to complete its term in 65 years.

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