Pakistan's Supreme Court is demanding the nation's lawmakers disclose whether they are also citizens of other countries, a status that could cost them their seats. Already, around a dozen legislators on the federal and provincial levels have been pushed out, and that might be just the beginning.
The developments suggest institutional power struggles are deepening in Pakistan ahead of an election season that some say could produce an even weaker government than the one in charge now. The dispute also adds to political instability in a nation the United States considers a crucial, though unreliable, ally in the battle against Islamist extremists as it winds down the war effort in Afghanistan.
"The judiciary is using all possible means to stretch its power," said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. "This is going to be a serious issue, and it is quite possible that different political parties will get together to frame a law through parliament to save their skin."
Experts agree that the law forbids Pakistanis who hold other nationalities from holding elected office. Nonetheless, amid all of Pakistan's other problems, the laws were largely ignored for years.
During the 1990s and 2000s, when there was a military coup and other political turbulence, many in Pakistan's political elite left for Britain, Australia, the United States and other countries, where some obtained citizenship. The return of civilian rule in 2008 drew many of them back to Pakistan, eager to win elected posts.
The government, led by the Pakistan People's Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, has been in a power struggle with the military ever since it took office nearly five years ago. In recent months, the Supreme Court, too, has emerged as a forceful player, using various legal tools to pursue politicians and, in some cases, the military.
Among the first to be targeted on the nationality issue was Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and wife of the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. He resigned last year after becoming a target of the high court in a separate affair.
Ispahani, who also holds American citizenship, called the decision to strip her of her seat earlier this year political. "Once again, unelected individuals are trying to overturn the result of elections," she said in an email to The Associated Press. Supreme Court justices in Pakistan are appointed following vetting by multiple bodies.
In recent months the court has also targeted Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik. He resigned his spot in the Senate, renounced his British citizenship and then recaptured the seat, but the court is still looking at prosecuting him on suspicion of not revealing his full status when he first won the seat.
Overall, around a dozen lawmakers have been disqualified and face criminal action on charges such as giving false statements, said Syed Sher Afgan, a senior official with Pakistan's Election Commission.
At the direction of the court, the commission has sent requests seeking declarations of citizenship from more than 1,100 federal and provincial lawmakers. Election officials had hoped to get a sense later this month about how many lawmakers were ineligible, but this week it emerged that some legislative bodies asked to obtain the declarations from members are resisting the request.
Opinions among lawmakers are divided about the principle of letting people with other nationalities run for office, and consensus on what to do about the existing law may be tough to achieve. A government attempt to change the law to allow foreign citizenship-holders to contest office has stalled.
Supporters of the court's actions question the loyalty of Pakistanis with other passports, asking whether they can truly represent the people in this country, where the majority live in poverty and have little chance to travel abroad. Others insist that Pakistanis with foreign ties often retain strong bonds to their homeland and can offer resources and expertise the country needs.
"Loyalty is a subjective thing," said Faisal Subzwari, a top official with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party in the ruling coalition which supports letting Pakistanis with other nationalities run for office. "People who have been looting and plundering our resources, people who have been trying to harm the motherland - the vast majority have not had dual nationality."
Citizenship requirements for officeholders vary widely across the world.
In the United States, dual citizens have held top offices - former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hung on to his Austrian citizenship while also being a naturalized American, for instance. But in Egypt, a presidential candidate whose late mother held U.S. citizenship was disqualified in accordance with a law that bans presidential hopefuls, their spouses and their parents from holding another nationality.
The citizenship controversy echoes another recent Pakistani scandal, one involving lawmakers alleged to have faked their educational degrees to meet a requirement for office. Afgan, the election official, said more than 50 fake degree cases were pursued. It's questionable if the notoriously slow courts will ever resolve them all. The degree requirement has since been canceled.
The political maneuvering could foretell a bitter election season in Pakistan. Elections are expected at some point in the spring, though the vote may be called earlier.
The ruling People's Party is likely to lose seats, but it still could win more than any other party in parliament. Analysts expect other factions, such as the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to do well. Sharif's party has a strong shot at defeating the People's Party.
Political analyst Rizvi said the next government is likely to be another coalition. Depending on the number of seats each party wins, it's possible the lead grouping will have to make even more compromises than today's People's Party has had to. Rizvi said the best case is that the government will be as weak as this one.
"It will be either as weak, or weaker. It seems very clear it can't be a stronger government," he said.
Nahal Toosi can be reached at http://twitter.com/nahaltoosi.