ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister appealed for support Friday from parliament in a standoff between his beleaguered government and the military, saying lawmakers had to choose between "democracy and dictatorship."
Tensions between the armed forces and the civilian leadership have escalated in recent months, raising fears of a coup attempt or that the army might support possible moves by a partisan Supreme Court to oust the elected government.
The military and the government have been locked in a standoff for months, but a scandal that erupted last year after an unsigned memo was sent to Washington asking for its help in heading off a supposed coup has caused friction to spike this week.
Opposition parties have spoken out against any military takeover, but they are seeking to exploit the crisis to push for early polls. General elections are not scheduled until early 2013, but many people expect they will take place sooner.
On Monday, the parliament is set to vote on a "show of confidence" in Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
The resolution prepared by the government and its coalition partners pledges "full confidence and trust" in the political leadership and says all state institutions must act within limits imposed by the constitution – an apparent rebuke to the military for crossing into politics. Given the ruling party's majority in the house, it should pass and give something of a boost to the government.
Gilani said the parliament must choose Monday between "democracy or dictatorship."
The government is determined not to step down before Senate polls scheduled for March. That vote is carried out by lawmakers and is expected to give President Asif Ali Zardari's and Gilani's Pakistan People's Party a majority in the upper house, handing it significant political power for the next six years.
The army has staged at least three coups in Pakistan's six-decade history. It still considers itself the true custodian of the country's interests. On Wednesday, it warned of "grievous consequences" for the country in an unusual statement, setting off the latest round of coup fears.
Earlier Friday, two officials – one in Britain, the other in Pakistan – said Gilani had called the top British diplomat in the country this week expressing fears that the Pakistani army might be about to stage a coup. However, the British Foreign Office and Gilani's office denied any such phone call had been made.
The prime minister also asked High Commissioner Adam Thomson for Britain to support his embattled government, according to the officials, who didn't give their names because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement Friday there was "no phone call on this matter." The prime minister's office also said Gilani had "not spoken to the British High Commissioner in this regard."
The Pakistani government is unlikely to want to publicly admit to asking Britain for help because it would be taken as a sign that it is worried about its position.
Analysts say army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has little appetite for a coup, but they say the generals may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government by "constitutional means." The court has legitimized early coups. The Zardari government resisted reinstating Chief Justice Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry when it came to power in 2008 because it feared he would topple them.
"The military and the judiciary seem to be one side while the civilian government is on the other," said The Daily Times in an editorial. "The suspicion in the minds of some observers is that an indirect coup might be in the offing against a democratically elected government."
A Supreme Court commission is probing the memo affair, which in theory could lead to Zardari's ouster.
The court has also ordered the government to open corruption investigations into Zardari dating back years. The government has refused. Earlier this week, the court said it could dismiss Zardari and Gilani over the case. Judges are convening Monday for what could be a decisive session.
Zardari traveled last month to Dubai for medical reasons, triggering widely reported rumors he was on the verge of resigning. On Thursday, he traveled to the same city, citing "personal reasons," returning early Friday, said spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Asked whether Zardari was concerned about his political future, Babar said, "Absolutely not. Why should he be? He is comfortable and perfectly all right."
The nuclear-armed country is facing a host of problems, among them near economic collapse and a virulent al-Qaida- and Taliban-led insurgency. The fight has been complicated by allegations that the country's main Inter-Services Intelligence is supporting some of the insurgents.
On Friday, a government-appointed commission investigating the unsolved murder of a journalist last year said that the ISI needed to be more "law-abiding." The report did not find enough evidence to name any perpetrators in the death of Saleem Shahzad, who was killed after he told friends he had been threatened by the ISI.
The commission called on the ISI to be made more accountable to the government through internal reviews and oversight by parliament. It said its interactions with reporters should be closely monitored.
Also Friday, militants assaulted a police station in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing three officers and wounding nine others, said police officer Saeed Khan.
The Pakistani Taliban have carried out hundreds of attacks on the army and other security forces since 2007. The attack came a day after militants with guns and grenades killed four soldiers in an ambush in the South Waziristan tribal area.
Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.