By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's powerful Supreme Court on Thursday ordered imminent general elections to go ahead as planned in a bid to quash fears a fledgling democratic process is about to be derailed.
The order came amid speculation that the military is working with the judiciary to force out a civilian leader and delay the elections that will mark the first time a civilian government in Pakistan has completed a full term since independence in 1947.
"The executive, both civilian and military, shall not take any action or steps that are tantamount to deviation from the election," Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ruled.
"Deviation from the constitution or introducing any other system not recognized by the constitution shall not be acceptable."
The general election is expected in May.
This month, a firebrand cleric, Tahirul Qadri, camped outside parliament with thousands of supporters calling on the government to step down.
The timing of Qadri's return from six years in Canada, just a few months before elections are due, and his role in supporting a 1999 coup by former army chief Pervez Musharraf, had raised fears that the army was using him to bring down the government and provide a pretext to hand-pick a caretaker cabinet.
Under Chaudhry, the Supreme Court, which has final say on interpreting the constitution, has been embroiled in a long-running showdown with the government that has laid bare institutional tension plaguing a country that has developed nuclear weapons but has yet to agree on how it should be run.
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its 66 years as an independent nation, has not hidden its disdain for the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, but has said it does not wish to seize power this time round.
The judges' eagerness to rewrite the rules of Pakistan's power game have won it support among those who see the judiciary as the only realistic hope of holding their leaders to account.
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)