The Greatest Moment in Pakistani Democracy

This week may very well be remembered in Pakistan as the greatest point in the restoration of democracy in its 63 year history. Yesterday, after a year long legislative effort led by President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party in the National Assembly of Pakistan, agreement was finally reached on the most dramatic and sweeping constitutional changes in Pakistan's history, restoring the 1973 Pakistani Constitution, which created a Pakistani parliamentary democracy based on the British Westminster model. The 1973 Constitution had been perverted by the actions of two military dictators, Generals Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf by stripping power from Parliament and creating a powerful extra-constitutional Presidential system, centralizing political power into their own hands after their respective coup d'états. The National Assembly and the Senate of Pakistan, meeting in Islamabad of undoing this tragedy by making our constitution whole and uniting our country across provinces, ethnicities and politics. What makes this even more remarkable is that the process was initiated and has been directed by the current President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari. This may be the first time in recorded history that a national leader willingly sacrificed his own political power for the sake of restoring constitutional, democratic rule of law. The Parliamentary Committee, created at the request of the President last year, not only voted to restore the powers of Parliament, but also to depoliticize the judicial appointment process by creating multipartisan judicial selection. This too was another example of Zardari willingly directing that powers held by the president be returned to the National Assembly.

As the world fully understands, Pakistan has had a difficult path to sustained democracy since its creation in 1947. Events since the toppling of the elected democratic government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and his subsequent judicial murder, have been particularly painful and destabilizing for my nation. Military dictators General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf played havoc with the constitution and our state institutions. General Musharraf's assault on the constitution is fresh in the memory of the Pakistani nation. Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan in October 2007 and her sacrifice of her own life for the liberty of our people gave the nation the strength to face down the Musharraf dictatorship and to ensure a peaceful return to democracy as a result of the February 2008 elections.

Yet democratic elections alone have not fully restored democracy in Pakistan. That true resurrection of our democratic institutions and the strengthening of our democratic infrastructure was dependent on the restoration of the 1973 constitution. The restoration of the 1973 Constitution, and the aberration of those clauses that usurped power from the parliament into the hands of military dictators who had self-anointed themselves as President, was the most central plank of the Pakistan Peoples Party platform drafted by our late beloved leader Benazir Bhutto before her assassination in 2007. Although she never lived to see her dream achieved, the honor of removing the remnants of dictatorship in Pakistan has been bestowed on the democratically elected PPP government under the stewardship of Zardari. Under his leadership, the Constitution is being restored with the support and participation of all major political forces in the country. And by decentralizing critical powers to Pakistan's four great provinces, the reform package is fundamentally strengthening the Pakistani federation.

Contrary to those who would belittle him, Asif Zardari is hardly a recent convert to the restoration of the 1973 Constitution. President Zardari had planned to complete the transition to democracy and to return the country to the foundations of the 1973 constitution from his first day in office. During his address to the joint sitting of the parliament last year, he advised the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Fahmida Mirza, to immediately form a constitutional committee comprising representatives of all political forces in the parliament to look at not only doing away with the arbitrary amendments including the infamous 17th amendment inserted by the dictator but also to settle the question of provincial autonomy according to the wishes of the federating units. He called upon his party in Parliament to enact a package of constitutional reforms as quickly as possible.

Irrespective of what his detractors may like to say, the fact is that Zardari has ungrudgingly consented, as was his original promise and intention, to forgo the powers conferred on the President under the 17th amendment thus implementing the public commitment of his wife and of our Party. He is not being "stripped of his power" as some have characterized it either out of ignorance or mischief, but rather has been in the vanguard of democratic change. The constitutional committee that was created at his request, specifically for this purpose, has completed its job and the reform package will be put before the National Assembly on Thursday and the Senate on Friday.

As a Pakistani, a lawyer and a former Pakistani army officer, I am proud of the steps my country has taken to strengthen our democracy through bold institutional reform. This is truly one of the greatest achievements in the history of our Nation. And whether one personally likes him or not, the full credit for the implementation of this central plank of the Pakistan Peoples Party's commitment to our nation belongs to the president of our country, Asif Ali Zardari. His actions are both historic and unprecedented, what John Kennedy would have called a "profile in courage."