Embroiled in a major crisis that threatens his political future, President Asif Ali Zardari has given up control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and has pledged to relinquish his power to dissolve parliament.
Zardari’s actions coincided with the expiration of an amnesty today that had shielded him and thousands of other government officials from corruption charges and criminal accusations.
Zardari handed over control of the National Command Authority, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal, to Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani late Friday night. His office said the move was in line with the president’s overall goal of transferring more of his powers to the office of the directly elected prime minister.
“Transferring the chairmanship of the National Command Authority to the prime minister is a giant leap forward to empowering the elected parliament and the prime minister,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.
In an interview Friday with Pakistan’s Express News television network, Zardari also said he was planning to give up several other presidential powers sometime in December.
An unpopular figure viewed by many Pakistanis as a symbol of the country’s endemic corruption, Zardari now finds himself fighting for his political life. The expiration of the amnesty, known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, has given the country’s military, opposition parties and Zardari’s critics in the Pakistani media an opportunity to maneuver for his ouster.
The amnesty was issued by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 and applied to all politicians and bureaucrats accused of corruption and criminal charges between 1986 and 1999, the year Musharraf, as army chief, seized power. Backed by the U.S., the ordinance was meant to allow former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return from exile to Pakistan without facing the prospect of the filing of politically motivated corruption charges against her.
When Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, Zardari, her husband, took over as party chief and later was elected president by the country’s national and provincial lawmakers.
Last weekend, Zardari as well as Pakistan’s Defense and Interior ministers were named in a list of 8,000 politicians who benefited from the amnesty. As president, Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution.
The Supreme Court, which could choose to challenge Zardari’s eligibility to be president, is overseen by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the highly popular judge ousted by Musharraf and reinstated by Zardari only after intense pressure from opposition leaders and a grass-roots lawyers movement.