April 2, 2010 / 7:06 AM / 10 years ago

Pakistan tables long-awaited constitutional reforms

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani government introduced a constitutional bill in parliament Friday to transfer President Asif Ali Zardari’s sweeping powers to the prime minister, possibly ending months of political wrangling.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari waits to speak at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, September 18, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

The set of reforms, known as the “18th Amendment Bill,” is expected to be passed by the two-chambered parliament, effectively turning Zardari into a titular head of state.

The development may help calm political opposition to Zardari, but the government faces mounting pressure from an assertive Supreme Court to reopen corruption cases against the president after it threw out a controversial amnesty law in December.

“I suspect that after the signing of the 18th amendment, it (the political environment) is going to change,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia director for the International Crisis Group.

“Part of the problem is structural. Nobody knows where the locus of authority lies.”

Because of that uncertainty, she said all branches of government are trying to expand their powers at the expense of the others.

“There’s a little bit of muscle flexing all around.”

But if the 18th Amendment goes through smoothly, the center of authority goes to the parliament, “with the judiciary interpreting” — possibly leading to a less assertive bench.

“It will settle down,” Ahmed predicted.

That hasn’t happened yet. On Friday, Pakistan’s Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan resigned, just one day after he told the Supreme Court that the law minister and his ministry were not providing him documents relating to corruption cases against thousands of people, including Zardari.

“It had become impossible for me to work in such a situation,” Khan told Reuters.

Analysts say that even as a ceremonial president, Zardari would still yield considerable influence from his position as head of the Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest political party.

The PPP was once led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari’s wife, who was assassinated in December 2007.

Under the proposed constitutional amendments, the president will lose his key powers, including the authority to dissolve the national assembly and appoint powerful military chiefs and the chief election commissioner.

The bill gives the prime minister final say on dissolving the national assembly and appointing the heads of the armed forces. The bill also shifts Zardari’s powers to appoint judges to a commission comprised of senior judges and government figures.

Farah Ispahani, a senior PPP leader, said it was wrong to say the bill “stripped” Zardari of his powers, “as he himself sought to restore the constitution to its original form without the amendments imposed by dictators.”

Most analysts, however, say Zardari only agreed to the reforms reluctantly after intense political pressure.

“FOCUS OF STORMS”

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, a staunch Bhutto loyalist, will emerge as the powerful head of the government after these constitutional reforms are adopted. Analysts say his role will come under increased scrutiny in the future.

“You think that the prime minister will become stronger after these amendments but I think now I will be the focus of all storms,” Gilani told parliament before the introduction of the bill.

“These proposals will strengthen democratic institutions.”

The reforms would also abolish the two-term limit on prime ministers, allowing Nawaz Sharif, a two-time former prime minister and now opposition leader, to contest for a third term after general elections due in 2013.

Under the bill, provinces will get greater autonomy, while the mainly ethnic Pashtun North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan gets a new name as “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” in a bid to represent its dominant population.

The legislation is likely to be passed by far more than the two-thirds super-majority needed in parliament because it has been drafted by a parliamentary committee made up of all political groups.

No date has been fixed for its adoption.

Editing by Chris Allbritton and Jerry Norton

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