By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 1:26 PM
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's National Assembly on Thursday passed sweeping constitutional reforms that sharply curtail the president's power and have at least the potential to stabilize the nation's habitually turbulent political system.
The changes wipe away a host of measures introduced by military dictators in recent decades that had eroded the power of parliament and centralized authority in the hands of the president. Under the reforms, Pakistan's prime minister and its provincial governments are expected to have greater latitude in running the country, which has become a central battleground for the United States in the fight against religious extremist groups.
President Asif Ali Zardari will now have an official role that is largely ceremonial, although he is expected to continue to wield significant influence as leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, or PPP. Zardari handpicked the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, and the two men are believed to agree on most major issues.
"The balance of power will definitely shift to the parliament and the prime minister. But as long as Zardari remains the chair of the party, he has a lot of clout over Gillani," said Rifaat Hussain, chair of the political science department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "Gillani remains a very docile prime minister. He feels very beholden to Zardari."
The unanimous vote on Thursday was celebrated by party leaders as a crucial victory for democracy in a country where the military has long trumped the civilian authority -- either by eliminating it through coups or by rendering it powerless to govern.
Significantly, Pakistan's military and security establishment is believed to have largely stayed out of efforts to shape Thursday's reforms. Analysts say that is an indication the military is content for now to allow civilians to be the public face of the government, even as the generals continue to hold vast sway behind the scenes.
The passage of the reform package makes good on a long-standing PPP campaign promise that was first made by Zardari's predecessor as party leader, his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto. In a speech to parliament earlier this week, Zardari dedicated the measures to Bhutto, who twice served as the nation's prime minister.
The reforms had the backing of leading opposition parties, and analysts say passage of the legislation could neutralize critics who had contended Zardari was slow to relinquish the power he inherited in 2008 from his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Still, Zardari remains deeply unpopular, and Thursday's vote is unlikely to satisfy Pakistanis who are suffering from high unemployment, rising food prices, energy shortages and a raging Taliban insurgency.
Zardari must also contend with the Supreme Court, which has threatened to reopen decades-old corruption cases against him and is believed to be eyeing a way to strip him of the legal immunity he enjoys as president.
The reform package, which must still be passed by the Senate in a vote widely seen as a formality, transfers from the president to the prime minister the right to dissolve parliament and to select the military leadership.
The amendment guards against future coups with a provision that bans judges from validating the suspension of the constitution, as they have under previous military regimes.
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's main opposition leader, could also benefit from the changes, which eliminate a law that capped prime ministers at two terms. Sharif has twice held the job but was ousted the second time by his then-army chief, Musharraf.
One of the most contentious elements of the reform package will give a new name to the North-West Frontier Province, which has been at the center of militancy in Pakistan in recent years. The old name -- a relic of colonial times -- was despised by many Pashtuns, who thought it did not reflect their status as the province's dominant ethnic group. The new name, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is intended to solve that problem, but it has sparked demonstrations in recent days by the area's ethnic minorities, who say it makes them feel unwelcome in their home province.