Mixed signals emerge on amending Pakistan’s constitution


Islamabad : With Pakistan’s parliament set to debate the repeal of a controversial constitutional amendment that gives unfettered powers to the presidency, mixed signals are emerging on the government’s stance on the issue given the barely veiled power struggle between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

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Zardari and Gilani met Saturday ostensibly for evolving a consensus on the four drafts that have been received from parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) on removing the 17th amendment that, among others, gives the president the power to dismiss the federal government and dissolve the provincial assemblies.

But then, evolving consensus is easier said than done.

For instance, there are sharp differences between Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

These centre around reinstating the 19 Supreme Court judges former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf sacked after imposing an emergency in November 2007.

The PPP had agreed to the measure when it formed a coalition with the PML-N after the February 2008 elections that saw them in a one-two finish. The PPP, however, backed out and this led to the PML-N quitting the coalition.

Zardari, on his part, fears that sacked chief justice Ifthikar Mohammad Chaudhury, if restored, could revive the various corruption cases against him that were closed as part of a deal that saw him and his slain wife Benazir Bhutto returning home from exile in October 2007.

This apart, there are reports, albeit officially denied, of the power struggle between Zadari and Gilani.

Zardari is known to be keen to transfer the powers of the presidency to the prime minister’s office and then occupy that post.

These reports are not new. They have been doing the rounds ever since the PPP swept to power and explain why a political lightweight like Gilani – whose highest previous appointment has been National Assembly speaker – for the prime minister’s post.

Gilani, however, has been slowly coming into his own and attempting to prove that he is no pushover.

Then, there was the tussle earlier this month over the sacking of National Security Advisor (NSA) Mehmud Ali Durrani for keeping Gilani out of the loop before admitting the Pakistani nationality of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone gunman captured during the Nov 26-29 Mumbai terror attacks.

Since the appointment was made by the president on the advice of the prime minister, Zardari has so far refrained from ratifying Gilani’s move. Thus, on paper, Durrani remains the NSA.

Thus, on one hand, the PPP hopes to achieve political consensus on repealing the 17th Amendment. But the larger question is: can Zardari and Gilani arrive at a consensus on the issue?

As The News noted in an editorial Sunday, “it would be immensely beneficial to all of us as citizens if our political parties were able to rise above self-interest and put national issues on top of their priority list”.

Holding that a “display of principle” was most needed “in these troubled times when multiple issues face us”, the editorial added: “The amendments in the constitution that give the president power over assemblies have been a source of a great deal of destabilisation through recent history.

“They have been a key factor in the repeated downfall of democratically elected governments, in a process that has continued since 1990,” The News said.

Thus, what was needed “most of all” was a “safe, sturdy political system: one within which roles are clearly defined and powers distinctly allocated.

“Our parliamentary system demands that the PM play the pivotal role in such a setup,” the editorial added.

“For these reasons the 17th amendment must go. All political parties need to come together on this, as a matter of principle that can ward off a great deal of instability in the future and by doing so move towards a solution that offers an end to the problems we face today,” The News maintained.