Pakistani Parliament expected to approve curbs on President Zardari's powers

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (Riccardo De Luca - Associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistan's Parliament is expected to pass constitutional changes in coming weeks that would vastly curtail the powers of President Asif Ali Zardari, effectively sidelining the unpopular leader of the nation's weak civilian government.

Zardari inherited far-reaching powers, including the ability to dissolve Parliament's lower house and to appoint the army chief, that were put in place under military ruler Pervez Musharraf. The likely changes would shift those powers to the prime minister, though many analysts say true authority in Pakistan would remain with the influential security establishment.

Strengthening Pakistan's civilian government is a priority of the Obama administration, which views Pakistan as vital to U.S. military success in Afghanistan. The changes, which have unusually broad-based support, could stabilize Pakistan's volatile political landscape by appeasing some of Zardari's many critics.

Zardari has faced demands to give up the powers since he took office in late 2008, and he has reluctantly pledged to do so. A committee on the constitutional changes is slated to present them and other recommended amendments this week to Parliament, which is expected to pass them by early April.

The changes would make Zardari's position far more ceremonial, and they could embolden Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani or power-seekers within the military. But analysts said that in practical terms, the shift would be mostly symbolic -- both because Zardari is already weak and because he will remain the head of the ruling party.

"At the end of the day, it's his government in power," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, an English-language newspaper. "And he still controls the prime minister by virtue of the fact that he's his party boss."

Zardari is expected to address Parliament this week in a speech that, according to Pakistani media, will cast the constitutional changes as a victory for democracy. The changes would also limit Zardari's ability to appoint judges or impose emergency rule.

Those adjustments would further enfeeble a president whose role has steadily weakened. The opposition has regularly threatened demonstrations, accusing Zardari of dodging corruption allegations and delaying the constitutional changes. Several of his efforts to exert control -- including his recent defiance of the popular chief justice -- have backfired. In November, he ceded his position in Pakistan's nuclear command structure to Gillani.

"The credibility of this government is so low that I've heard people in the party in the last two days saying, 'Fingers crossed, we hope this comes through,' " said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia director for the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has spent the past several weeks in Pakistan.

Gillani is viewed as a consensus-builder who is palatable to the opposition, military and public but is unlikely to defy ruling party wishes even after gaining enhanced powers.

Analysts noted that Pakistan's many military coups have all taken place when the president does not control the elected government, but they said there is little possibility of one at this stage.

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