Pakistan's President Zardari closer to losing powers

Pakistan's President Zardari could soon cede several of his powers to the prime minister, after a parliamentary committee approved a long-negotiated draft bill to that effect late Wednesday. It is expected to pass.

Anjum Naveed/AP
A traffic police officer drives past a portrait of Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari near the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan Wednesday. A Pakistani parliamentary committee has approved a set of amendments to the constitution that shift power from the president to the prime minister.

A Pakistani parliamentary committee on Wednesday approved a set of constitutional amendments that will, among other things, shift the balance of power from unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari to the prime minister.

Although the reforms, which are expected to pass, will curb Mr. Zardari’s powers, they may also elicit a rare flash of support for the embattled leader.

“It’s a massive political boost to [Zardari],” says Cyril Almeida, a political columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily. “It’s not the standard practice in Pakistan to give away powers. It’s more the reverse, where people consolidate or accumulate powers.”

Mr. Almeida points out, however, that Mr. Zardari will retain leverage over Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani in his capacity as co-chair of their ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

“The President is honoring our party’s commitment to restore the 1973 constitution and undo the usurpation of the authority of the people’s house by military dictators,” says Farahnaz Ispahani, Mr. Zardari’s spokeswoman, referring to former Pakistani ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

These powers include the authority to dissolve parliament, which was used four times during the 1990s to dismiss elected governments, and the power to appoint the commander of the armed forces.

The amendment bill will also achieve longstanding demands for greater provincial autonomy, and rename the North West Frontier Province as “Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa,” in recognition of the ethnic Pashtuns (or Pakhtoons) who make up the majority of the population there. The British had given the name “NWFP” in 1901, and news of the change sparked massive celebrations in the provincial capital of Peshawar.

The 27-member parliamentary committee, which included all parties and was led by the PPP, announced late Wednesday that it had reached a consensus, almost 10 months after convening. They approved the draft of the constitutional amendment, which is set to be presented for a vote in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

With the draft bill alone, however, the reforms are essentially a “sealed deal,” says Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

It is a “gain for democracy and democratic forces in the country,” he says.

Dogged by corruption charges

It remains unclear how much the passing of the bill will revive the popularity of the president, whose decades-old corruption charges continue to dominate headlines.

Before becoming president, Zardari served 11 years in jail on corruption charges, though he was never convicted in Pakistan. He earned the nickname “Mr. Ten Percent” for alleged kickbacks he charged while his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, served as prime minister.

Last December, the Supreme Court overturned an ordinance that had granted amnesty for corruption charges to many politicians, including Zardari. As head of state, Zardari enjoys immunity, but his opponents argue that with the amnesty lifted, he should never have been allowed to run for office in the first place.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered Mr. Gilani to approve a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen a corruption case against Zardari, TV news channel Geo reported. In 2003 a Swiss court convicted Zardari and Ms. Bhutto for money laundering, but the verdict was later overturned on appeal, and in 2008, the Pakistani government withdrew proceedings.

Swiss officials appeared unwilling to revisit the case.

“We can't prosecute Mr. Zardari while he has immunity unless Pakistan lifts that immunity,” Swiss Prosecutor-General Daniel Zappelli told Reuters. “And if he doesn't have immunity, why don't they try him in Pakistan?”

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