A judicial coup, not a military takeover - that's what might happen in Pakistan if civilian rulers keep up their defiance of the Supreme Court without addressing problems with the Army.
The government's vulnerable because it's unpopular. The scenario's a throwback on the 1997 polls when people saw the hand of Asif Zardari, then derided as Mr 10 per cent, in all that went wrong - be it natural disasters or highway holdups, including the one that left matinee idol Sultan Rahi dead on GT road. The result: The PPP's electoral decimation; Nawaz Sharif's return to power.
If the ruling combine's stock is low, the army isn't any more a blue-chip entity. Myriad factors have contributed to the khakis' dwindling credibility: The US raid that took out Osama bin Laden; Gen. Ashfaq Kayani's three-year extension causing heartburn among his peers; the US drone attacks the army permitted in the first place and the NATO air-strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
More shocking among such lows were terrorist strikes at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Mehran naval base in Karachi. What followed were disconcerting reports of an Al Qaeda-Taliban infiltration in the armed forces.
The perception of an 'army in a shambles' constituted the genesis - or so it's claimed - for the memo the civilian leadership sent to the Americans to contain the military's influence in the country's affairs. A coup will help the PPP and weaken the army's perceived allies - most notably the top judiciary alienated and antagonised by President Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
That makes a judicial coup more plausible than a military takeover. For the PM's disqualification in the NRO case will also render Zardari's Presidency untenable.
At the root of the ruling combine's face-off with the Supreme Court is its refusal to reopen the Swiss bank account case against Zardari and his deceased wife. The plea: the probe's revival isn't acceptable to the PPP as it'll amount to putting Benazir Bhutto on trial posthumously.
The SC has since found the President and the PM in violation of the Constitution - to which they have sworn allegiance - for placing the party above the judiciary. The 18th amendment to the Constitution vests in the PM the powers earlier enjoyed by the President, including appointment and removal of defence chiefs. That makes inviolable his accountability to courts.
For these reasons, the SC's full bench hearing on Monday will determine the government's fate.
A six-point order last week by a smaller bench held out the threat of the PM's disqualification while affording the regime the escape of an early election. An adverse ruling against Gilani will inevitably lead to a full-blown crisis, denying him the Parliamentary protection he invoked against any extra-constitutional intervention.
"You alone have the right. If you want a no-confidence vote, it can be debated," Gilani told the Opposition in the National Assembly, warning the House against forces outside attempting to derail democracy.
But his defence sounded hollow for his refusal to recognise the court's primacy in the interpretation and enforcement of the Constitution.
Regardless of his pathological dislike of Zardari, chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary is against a military takeover. That's also the stated position of PML(N)'s Nawaz Sharif and Tehreek-e-Insaaf's Imran Khan. The government, therefore, might itself pave the road for army's intervention if it continues locking horns with the SC.
Only snap polls or a leadership change can provide the beleaguered PPP an honourable exit. The antidote was tried in 1993 when Sharif's run-ins with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan precipitated a constitutional breakdown. It's called the "Kakar Formula" as the referee then was Army chief Abdul Waheed Kakar.