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Pakistan's Opposition Criticizes Plans to Amend Constitution

Opposition parties and human rights activists in Pakistan are criticizing President Pervez Musharraf for his plans to amend the country's constitution.

The military leader has proposed constitutional changes that will give him new powers, including the authority to dismiss an elected government. President Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, said the constitutional changes will ensure a "stable and sustainable" democratic process in Pakistan.

President Musharraf's government has recently unveiled a package of proposed constitutional amendments that will tighten the military leader's grip on power. The amendments will give the the president general authority to dismiss an elected prime minister and his government on such grounds as abuse of authority or failure to keep corruption in check. Pakistan's current constitution gives the prime minister such powers. President Musharraf is also seeking the right to name the future prime minister from among elected deputies.

The government said it will finalize the proposed constitutional changes after a month-long national debate.

But the move has outraged opposition parties in the country, which are gearing up for parliamentary elections in October. They said it is an attempt to cement the role of the military in the politics and to prolong President Musharraf's own rule.

Ehsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said the proposed changes in constitution are "a recipe for disaster." Mr. Iqbal said it is also an effort to reduce the future Prime Minister to the role of a "puppet."

"There are far more checks and guarantees to dismiss a peon from an office rather than to dismiss a prime minister, arbitrarily and through discretionary powers of the president. This will undermine the authority of the prime minister. He will always function under great insecurity, which will not enable him to discharge his duty," Mr. Iqbal said.

The draft constitutional amendments also include plans for a powerful 10-member National Security Council. It will have army generals and civilians as its members and will be headed by President Musharraf under a system of "checks and balances". Mr. Iqbal said the council is a "supra-constitutional body" and is designed to make the future parliament subservient to President Musharraf.

"If we want to curb the powers of the Prime Minister, if we think he is all too powerful, then we must strengthen the parliamentary institutions rather than creating supra-constitutional National Security Council like institutions, which have very strong presentations of the military and very weak representatives of the people. It is the representation of the people which must be supreme. That is what is the spirit of democracy. That is the only way to have sustainable and stable democracy," Mr. Iqbal.

Pakistani Law Minister Khalid Ranjha dismissed charges that the proposed constitutional amendments are designed to strengthen President Musharraf. He said politicians criticizing the proposals are doing so because they are not happy with government's anti-corruption campaign.

"The intention is to promote balance of power in institutions within the constitutional framework. And since at the moment the atmosphere is charged, no matter what you do they will criticize just because they want to oppose. All they are scared of, all there relenting is the process of accountability. They are very unhappy about it," he said.

Independent observers and political analysts like Syed Talat Hussain said the government proposals could be diluted somewhat after the suggested month-long debate but essentially would stand.

"They are meant for public debate. And I am sure this kind of criticism is going to significantly dilute many of these amendments. However, having said this, this government's mind is made up that it wants to make sure that there is a significant alteration in the way power is distributed between the prime minister and the president. It will be the president who will be calling the shots on significant issues, not the prime minister," Hussain.

He said that President Musharraf is most likely to amend the constitution by a decree. He said the military leader has the power to do so under a Supreme Court ruling that validated his coup.