Pakistani President Gives Up Some Power, Voluntarily

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari has done something that most politicians in any country don't usually do: give up powers, voluntarily. The extraordinary measure has come about with months of political wrangling, but now looks like more of a reality.

The 17th amendment of the Pakistani constitution grants the president the power to dismiss the prime minister, dissolve the parliament and choose the heads of the armed forces. These are powers first added by Zia-ul Haq in 1985, repealed by the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif and then reintroduced by General Pervez Musharraf as the 17th amendment to the constitution. It has been used and abused many a time.

The National Assembly just has passed an 18th amendment repealing the 17th amendment to the constitution. The new amendment eradicates General Zia's imprints from the constitution and takes away powers from the presidential office.

Taking away such powers from the presidency and handing it over to the office of the prime minister is going to strengthen Pakistan's new democracy. It is basically reinforcing the parliamentary form of democracy. Under this system the prime minister is the chief executive being the elected official chosen by the party with the majority in the parliament, where as the President is appointed by the prime minister as the head of the state with only nominal powers. But historically under the army rule Pakistan has always drifted to the presidential form of the government with prime minister being hand-picked by the president/military ruler.

Opponents of former president General Pervez Musharraf had used the 17th amendment as a rallying point to vent their discontent for him, saying he had abused his powers. President Zardari has also been accused of relishing his powers granted by this amendment.

Thus, giving them up is a political move on his part. It is seen by many in Pakistan as Zardari's last ditch effort to hang on to his office, after an 18-month presidency with many political mishaps. The new amendment still has to be approved by the Senate after which it can be signed into law by the president.

Even with this achievement, the PPP, the current ruling party, has had a disappointing two years in office. With inflation running high and the economy not on a path to recovery, the electorate is already looking for other options.

Since the party has been elected for a 5-year term this government should be allowed to complete its tenure. After that the choice is in the hands of the voters. That is the point of democracy, the point of political due process. Pakistanis need to learn to be patient and let a government run its course and use elections to portray their disappointment or approval.

This law will be part of an important process to strengthen Pakistan's new and very fragile democracy.