The government has tabled the 18th Amendment bill in parliament, moving one step closer to making history by turning back the anti-democratic measures that have stood in the way of democratization. Actually, this is a historic step forward for the nation’s democratization process, and has been the result of our esteemed leaders of all parties coming together and putting the good of the nation before personal power of political gamesmanship.
The move has been hailed as an enormous triumph for Zardari, a key US ally in the war on al-Qaeda but an unpopular president in Pakistan, where the government is under pressure to re-open graft cases against him.
Under the constitutional reforms, the president would no longer have the power to dismiss the prime minister, dissolve parliament — as enacted multiple times in the past — or appoint the head of the country’s armed forces.
The 18th amendment would put no bar on prime ministers standing for only two terms in office — allowing opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who was toppled by Musharraf in 1999, to again become premier.
“I congratulate the entire nation on this 18th amendment,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told the lower house of parliament.
“It is historic. Some people think that the prime minister will be stronger now. But in fact these constitutional amendments will strengthen institutions.”
“This is unprecedented in the history of Pakistan,” Gilani added, before Raza Rabbani, head of the parliamentary committee on constitutional reform, unveiled the package.
International media is also noticing the triumph of history in Pakistan, giving the country a boost of good news during often difficult times.
“It’s a massive political boost to [Zardari],” says Cyril Almeida, a political columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily. “It’s not the standard practice in Pakistan to give away powers. It’s more the reverse, where people consolidate or accumulate powers.”
Mr. Almeida points out, however, that Mr. Zardari will retain leverage over Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani in his capacity as co-chair of their ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
“The President is honoring our party’s commitment to restore the 1973 constitution and undo the usurpation of the authority of the people’s house by military dictators,” says Farahnaz Ispahani, Mr. Zardari’s spokeswoman, referring to former Pakistani ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
These powers include the authority to dissolve parliament, which was used four times during the 1990s to dismiss elected governments, and the power to appoint the commander of the armed forces.
The amendment bill will also achieve longstanding demands for greater provincial autonomy, and rename the North West Frontier Province as “Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa,” in recognition of the ethnic Pashtuns (or Pakhtoons) who make up the majority of the population there. The British had given the name “NWFP” in 1901, and news of the change sparked massive celebrations in the provincial capital of Peshawar.
While none of this would be possible without all political parties coming together finally and building a consensus agreement on the best direction for the nation, I do believe that special consideration must be given to President Zardari. Regardless of any other questions, it is hard to imagine any other President volunteering to give powers back where they belong.
When the American President George W. Bush seized powers, it was heavily critized as anti-democratic. But even President Barack Obama is keeping the executive powers that were seized under Bush. For President Zardari to make the unprecedented move to voluntarily put the government back in order, even as it limits his own powers as President, makes the bill even more historic.
We continue to face many challenges as we move forward. Jihadis continue to attack us, trying to destroy our culture and way of life. Still loadshedding continues and energy remains in crisis. And the economy is struggling to improve, but is faced with difficulties. But today we find a reason to hold our heads with great pride. We are making history not just for Pakistan, but for the world. Pakistan Zindabad.