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Pakistan Seeks Return to Parliamentary System

  • Gary Thomas

Pakistan's parliament is preparing to vote to take away the president's power to dismiss the prime minister. It is also to vote to change the name of one of its provinces. The proposals have deep implications for the country's political and social structure.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is doing something very unusual for most politicians, he is asking parliament to take away some of his power.

In a speech Monday to a joint parliamentary session, he called on parliament to pass a new amendment to the constitution that would strip the president of the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve the National Assembly.

Former Pakistan Ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, says it would in effect restore Pakistan to a state under which power rests with the prime minister and the president is a figurehead.

"The political parties see this as a way - of course, rightly - of restoring the '73 constitution to its original form, which basically means rebalancing power away from the president and towards the prime minister, and restoring to parliament to what it should have under a parliamentary system," said Lodhi.

That power to fire the government was first appropriated by a former military ruler, President Zia ul-Haq, in 1985. Zia died three years later, but that power remained in the president's hands. It was used three times in the 1990s to dismiss democratically elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and was retained by another military ruler, Pervez Musharraf.

In the last election in 2008, the head of Pakistan Peoples' Party, Asif Zardari, became president instead of prime minister. Zardari is the husband of former Prime Minister Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007.

Maleeha Lodhi says that since the president and prime minister are from the same party, stripping away the president's power will have little immediate practical effect. But, she adds, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani can be expected to gradually become more assertive.

"The more power is drained away from him [Zardari], it does mean it will enable Prime Minister Gilani, who is seen as a more consensual figure in Pakistani politics, to begin to assert himself and to establish greater autonomy than he has had in the past two years," added Lodhi.

The 18th Amendment also wipes away a vestige of British colonial rule on the Indian subcontinent. Under the proposal, the name of the North West Frontier Province will be changed to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Congressional Research Service South Asia analyst Alan Kronstadt says the change has long been a platform plank of the Awami National Party (ANP), an ethnic-Pashtun party that won the 2008 provincial elections.

"That is actually a long-standing request by many that the Frontier should reflect, as the other Pakistani provinces do, the name should reflect the majority ethnicity there," said Kronstadt. "And you have in power there the ANP, which is a Pashtun-nationalist party, and so they are proponents of what would be an important symbolic development."

A name change for the province has long been resisted, especially by the military, for fear it would reawaken dormant Pashtun nationalist sentiment for more autonomy or even separation from Pakistan. Longtime South Asia affairs analyst Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy says Pashtuns have often resented what they see as ethnic Punjabi domination of government institutions, particularly the military.

"In the case of the Pashtuns of the North West Frontier, the British rigged the elections at the time of independence so that the dominant movement in the Pashtun areas - which wanted an independent Pashtunistan and did not want to join Pakistan either - was marginalized," noted Harrison. "So you have had very serious tensions over the terms of the relationship between the dominant Punjab and these ethnic minority regions."

But Maleeha Lodhi, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, dismisses fears of rekindling Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan.

"We have seen over the last two or three decades that the Pashtuns, who were once an alienated ethnic group, have been increasingly integrated into mainstream Pakistan," explained Lodhi. "They are represented in Pakistan's powerful military. They are represented in Pakistan's civil service. And, of course, they have entered in the last several decades Pakistan's industrial elite. So I do not think there is any danger of that kind anymore."

The 18th Amendment is widely expected to garner the necessary two-thirds majority with little trouble when a vote is taken, because its drafting was done by a bipartisan parliamentary commission.