Pakistan moves to roll back presidential powers

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will see most of his powers stripped and his office turned into a figurehead role under sweeping constitutional changes introduced Friday and expected to be passed by parliament next week.

Support is virtually unanimous for a constitutional amendment that returns the bulk of the powers held by the president to the prime minister. Zardari himself backed the change, giving in to political pressure from all sides to relinquish powers that had been acquired by military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Washington has a strong relationship with Zardari but experts said they did not expect the rapport with Islamabad to change significantly with Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani leading the government. Pakistan’s military will still have profound influence over relations with the U.S.

“This shouldn’t have any implications for U.S.-Pakistani relations,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. “With Gilani, there’s no difference.”

Zardari’s archrival, former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, has long pushed for the weakening of presidential authority, recently calling Zardari “the biggest threat to democracy.”

Sharif also stands to benefit from the constitutional changes. A key provision would allow prime ministers to serve more than two terms. Sharif, who lobbied hard for the provision, has already served two terms as prime minster. The changes would allow him to serve again if his party wins countrywide elections in 2013.

Surrendering some presidential powers was a matter of political survival for Zardari, analysts say. During his 18-month presidency, Zardari has been hamstrung by an antagonistic relationship with the powerful military, which sees him as too pliant in his relations with the United States and bent on curbing the clout of the security establishment.

“It’s not a voluntary act,” Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a Lahore-based political analyst, said of the president’s support for the reforms. “It’s the result of pressure from political forces. It’s a political compulsion which allows him to stay in power.”

Agreeing to a reduced role allows Zardari to retain the mantle of president, and he will still wield the power that comes with being chairman of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. Though Gilani will become the dominant figure in government, he will still be politically subordinate to Zardari within the party’s hierarchy.

Lawmakers hailed the 18th amendment to Pakistan’s 37-year-old constitution as a step toward forging a democracy anchored by a strong, independent parliament.

“We’ve gone back to the intent of the framers of the original constitution, which is to have a parliamentary democracy in this country,” said Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a lawmaker with Sharif’s PML-N party. “We had a quasi-democratic system here. Now we have a full democracy.”

Under the amendment, the president will no longer be able to dissolve parliament. The authority to appoint the armed services chiefs shifts to the prime minister. The amendment also transfers “executive authority,” which includes power to appoint Cabinet members and ambassadors, to the prime minister.

Zardari will remain commander-in -chief, but that role is considered nominal in the face of the far-reaching powers wielded by military leaders. Last year, he relinquished control of the National Command Authority, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal, to Gilani.

Never known for political acumen, Zardari fell into the positions of president and ruling party chief after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. Initially, he vowed to rescind the presidential powers accrued by Musharraf. But he dragged his feet on pushing through the constitutional changes, drawing criticism from opposition leaders and many in Pakistan’s media.

Passage of the 18th amendment should, for the time being, stabilize relations between Zardari’s ruling party and Sharif’s opposition movement, analysts say, a welcome development for officials in Washington who want Islamabad to keep its focus on combating terrorism in the country’s volatile northwest.

“Relations between the Pakistan People’s Party and the [opposition] will remain calm and cozy,” Rais said. “But elections are three years away, and as they approach, that will change.”