Democracy redux

"Impossible is made possible!" intoned Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, now the most powerful person in Pakistan, in jubilant reaction to the National Assembly's passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, on 8 April. A week later, the amendment, which includes 95 changes, received a near-unanimous vote by the Upper House, after the Parliamentary Committee on Constitution Reforms had sat for a staggering 77 meetings and 385 hours to reach consensus among 15 political parties. Yet with President Asif Ali Zardari finally signing the amendment, that long-drawn-out process has seemed worthwhile. Now, the 18th Amendment is set to dramatically curtail the powers that had been amassed by the presidency after General Zia ul-Haq overturned the 1973 constitution. Pakistan's legislature  is thus set to regain its rightful position as the country's most powerful branch of government, doing much to re-democratise the country after decades of military governments have taken their toll.

With these changes, key powers have been given back to the office of the (elected) prime minister, the position of which had been weakened through previous amendments aimed at strengthening the presidency. On paper, of course, the Pakistani state has always remained a parliamentary set-up; but on the ground it has long been presidential in form, as all key constitutional powers were in the hands of the president. Most particularly, these included the ability to dismiss the government, and to appoint both the heads of the armed forces as well as provincial governors. The president will no longer have the right to unilaterally dismiss Parliament, a 'right' that was originally included in the Eighth Amendment by Gen Zia, then removed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the 13th Amendment, and finally put back by Gen Musharraf during the last amendment exercise, in December 2003. Indeed, the new bill is the first in more than three and a half decades to empower Parliament at the cost of the presidency – during which time, importantly, Pakistan also became a nuclear-capable country.

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Himal Southasian