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Pakistani National Assembly Votes to Limit Presidential Powers

Pakistani parliament's lawmaking lower house has unanimously approved an amendment in the country's constitution, curbing crucial powers of the president.

The vote on what is being described as the "historic change" in the constitution was shown live on Pakistan's state-run television.

Of the 342 members in the National Assembly, 292 voted in favor of the legislation, known as the 18th constitutional amendment.

The female speaker of the Pakistani parliament's lower house, Fahmida Mirza, announced the result. "Consequently, the bill is passed by the [National] Assembly by not less than two thirds of the total membership of the Assembly. So it is passed unanimously," he said.

The legislation will turn President Asif Ali Zardari into a ceremonial head of the state by transferring key powers to the office of the prime minister and the parliament. The powers include the president's ability to dismiss an elected government, dissolve the parliament and appoint heads of the armed forces.

Pakistan's former military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, had introduced the powers in the 1980s to maintain control of elected government after declaring himself president of the country.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani while addressing the National Assembly after the vote said that changes military rulers had introduced disfigured the country's constitution. He says the passage of the bill has now removed those "anomalies" and has empowered the people of Pakistan.

Mr. Gilani said that by approving the legislation lawmakers have made possible what was being considered impossible and have established the sovereignty the parliament.

The constitutional amendment bill, which has cross-party support, must now be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, or upper house and be signed by President Zardari to take effect. Both are expected to approve the legislation.

While the president has fully backed the bill, it was unanimously drafted by a committee consisting of parliamentarians from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Many in Pakistan believe the 18th constitutional amendment will lead to political stability in the country, a close U.S ally, and will allow the government to pay more attention to deal with the Taliban-led insurgency."

But critics say that being the head of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party in addition to his role as the president of country, Mr. Zardari will still wield significant influence over the government.

Ahsan Iqbal is a member of the parliament and represents a major opposition political party (Pakistan Muslim League-N). "The practice in Pakistan after 1973 [when the existing constitution was passed] was that the president also resigned his party membership so that he could truly be representative of the federation and he could be a symbol of national unity. But Mr. Zardari has opted to continue with his party's office and if that practice continues and how much indulgence will he have in the policy making of the government, that has the chance of making his office [of the president] controversial," he said.

The legislation would also change the name of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to Khyber Pukhtoonkhaw. The province borders Afghanistan and parts of the province were until recently known as safe haven for Taliban insurgents.