ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A simmering power struggle in Pakistan erupted into open confrontation on Saturday, when the country’s top judge clashed with President Asif Ali Zardari over a judicial appointment.
The dispute over the choice of a Supreme Court judge is part of broader political battle between Mr. Zardari and the top judge, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, a powerful figure who has opened old corruption cases against Mr. Zardari and his allies.
It was not clear on Saturday night whether the standoff would deepen into crisis, or be resolved peacefully by Mr. Zardari backing down from his position, which officials of his party said simply followed legal precedent set by the court itself in 1996. Late Saturday, Mr. Chaudhry suspended the work of the Supreme Court next week to take up the matter.
The dispute centers around a constitutional ambiguity over how top judges are appointed in Pakistan. Under Pakistani law, the president has the right to appoint justices to the Supreme Court, but must consult with the chief justice.
On Saturday, Mr. Zardari named the senior judge of the Lahore High Court, Khwaja Sharif, to fill an opening on the Supreme Court, against the wishes of Mr. Chaudhry. Within hours, Mr. Chaudhry had convened an emergency legal panel, which ruled to suspend Mr. Zardari’s order, openly defying the president’s command.
But analysts argue the details are less important than the fact that the dispute pits a weak, unpopular president against a powerful chief justice. Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, an English-language newspaper, said he did not believe that this standoff would explode into crisis, but that it represented a worrying trend.
The last time the two openly clashed was last year, when Mr. Chaudhry led a national protest march to get Mr. Zardari to reinstate him as chief justice. Mr. Chaudhry eventually prevailed, gaining immense popularity in the process. “This is part of a larger power struggle being fought in very personalized terms,” Mr. Almeida said.
“It doesn’t look good,” he added. “Two sides digging in their heels. Something’s got to give.”
Senior officials in Mr. Zardari’s party said that Mr. Chaudhry was simply playing politics, behavior that has begun to alienate some of his former supporters, including the country’s top human rights advocate.
Much will depend on the position of the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who faced a similar situation as prime minister in the late 1990s. An aide to Mr. Sharif said on Saturday that Mr. Sharif had warned Pakistan’s prime minister, who is also a member of Mr. Zardari’s party, that the president should “act according to the recommendations of the chief justice.” But that advice was not heeded, the aide said. Mr. Sharif called a meeting of his party for Sunday.