Pakistan sits at the heart of the toughest questions in international politics. How to avoid civil war in Afghanistan? How to ease tensions with India? How to repair the counter-terrorism alliance with the United States? The answers looked no easier this week, as a flurry of news from Islamabad suggested a disconcerting lack of clarity about who was running the country.
Under the domed cupolas of the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, the seat of power for a nuclear-armed nation, no prime minister currently holds office.
Yousaf Raza Gilani left the building, and his job, under pressure from Pakistan's Supreme Court, which says that his tenure had been illegitimate since the court found him guilty in April of contempt as part of a long-running corruption scandal. President Asif Ali Zardari stepped away from the brink of a constitutional crisis on Wednesday with his decision to respect the court's ruling, and a new prime minister is expected to be approved on Friday.
Such political turmoil in Pakistan is usually viewed in the West through the lens of fear about terrorism and regional stability; Islamabad looking inward, consumed with gossip, is considered a risky distraction because of Pakistan's key role in the intelligence world.
That role was highlighted by reports on Wednesday that a French man, Naamen Meziche, was arrested in a southwestern province on suspicion of links with an al-Qaeda operative who planned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Such news barely gets noticed inside Pakistan, however, where ordinary people are far more concerned about the basics of governance. Electricity shortages have sparked deadly riots in several cities this summer.
Pakistanis often complain that their politicians seem more interested in pocketing cash than making the country work. Almost every prominent leader has been tainted by scandals; what makes Mr. Gilani unusual is that he faced consequences.
His removal marked the first time a Pakistani premier has been ousted by the courts, and some observers say this represents a hopeful sign that Pakistan is making a shaky transition into a country ruled by law.
"Democracy is evolving in Pakistan, and it's stronger than ever before, despite being chaotic and messy," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
"People generally are supporting the Supreme Court, because it makes bold decisions and holds powerful figures to account."
Not that the court itself has been beyond reproach. Some analysts described the court's move against Mr. Gilani as a way of shifting attention away from Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. His father had a sterling reputation for incorruptibility until Mr. Iftikhar was dragged into hearings before a special two-judge panel this month to face questions about whether he peddled his influence to a real-estate tycoon. The Chief Justice excused himself from the hearing, however, and announced that his son's case would be heard in open court to ensure transparency.
The Supreme Court has also pressed ahead with efforts to question Pakistan's security forces about the so-called "missing persons" who disappear on a regular basis in the restive province of Baluchistan, as part of the state's dirty war against insurgents. This means the court has picked a fight with the military and intelligence apparatus at the same time as it has unseated the civilian prime minister – battling on two fronts, in other words, with both the elected leaders and the unelected "deep state" that remains a powerful force in Pakistani politics.
The judiciary has been a rising third power in the Pakistani system since 2007, when then-president Pervez Musharraf fired Mr. Chaudhry and sparked a protest movement that became part of his downfall.
The Chief Justice was reinstated in 2009, but his return to the court was opposed by Mr. Zardari. The rivalry between the two men appears to have caught up the Prime Minister as collateral damage; the court had demanded that Mr. Gilani write a letter to Swiss investigators, asking them to re-open an investigation into Mr. Zardari's bank accounts. Mr. Gilani refused to sabotage his boss, and got convicted of contempt.
A special session of parliament is expected to vote for a new prime minister on Friday evening, but whoever gets the job will serve only eight months if elections go ahead as planned – and perhaps an even shorter term, if opposition parties succeed in their efforts to get a vote more quickly.
State television reported on Wednesday night that Mr. Zardari would nominate textile industry minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin for the post. That selection will need approval from regional factions in parliament, however, and the decision could prove temporary because news reports suggest that Mr. Shahabuddin himself may face arrest in an unrelated corruption case.
For all of the tumult in the halls of power, however, the analyst Mr. Mehboob said the streets of Islamabad seemed peaceful as he drove around the capital on Wednesday night. Many people are waiting for the coming elections to express themselves, he said, which itself would represent an improvement from the violence that has marred so much of Pakistan's political history.
"The next election could be a great leap forward," he said.