Thursday, April 1, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A parliamentary committee agreed on a constitutional amendment Wednesday that strips the Pakistani president of powers inherited from the country’s former military ruler, fulfilling a long-standing opposition demand and reducing pressure on the U.S.-allied leader.

The development could help calm Pakistan’s turbulent political environment at time when Washington wants the government focused on battling Taliban and al Qaeda militants blamed for cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“This was a difficult job that has been done amicably and with consensus,” Sen. Raza Rabbani, the head of the parliamentary committee, told reporters Wednesday.

The draft amendment transfers a variety of powers, including the ability to fire an elected government and appoint military chiefs, from the office of the president to the prime minister, said Sen. Hasil Baloch, another member of the committee.

The opposition has criticized President Asif Ali Zardari for not having relinquished the powers, which he first promised to do when he was elected in 2008.

Analysts say the changes mean Mr. Zardari will occupy a largely ceremonial post, but since he derives much of his power from his position as co-head of the largest party, he will still wield significant influence over the government.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is a loyal member of Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and a strong supporter of the president.

The constitutional amendment was drafted by a committee made up of representatives from every party in parliament and must be approved by two-thirds of parliament to be ratified.

The committee was expected to finalize the draft amendment last week, but opposition leader Nawaz Sharif raised unexpected objections at the last minute on two issues, including the process by which judges for the high courts are chosen and the new name for one of Pakistan’s four provinces.

The various sides resolved their differences Wednesday, paving the way for the amendment to be presented before parliament.

One key provision included in the amendment pushed by Mr. Sharif was the removal of a ban on prime ministers serving for more than two terms, Mr. Baloch said. Mr. Sharif served twice as prime minister in the 1990s and is eager to take up the job for a third time if his party can win the next set of national elections scheduled for 2013.

Mr. Sharif, who heads the second largest party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was the most vocal figure calling for Mr. Zardari to relinquish the powers he inherited from his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Zardari also has been under pressure from a Supreme Court decision in December to revoke a blanket amnesty that protected him and many other politicians, party members and bureaucrats from corruption charges filed in the 1990s.

That pressure also eased Wednesday when Switzerland said it would not reopen a money-laundering case against Mr. Zardari as long as he has legal immunity as president. The announcement marks the latest development in a months-long struggle between the government and the court.

“We could go further only if the competent authorities in Pakistan decide to lift the immunity of the head of state, which I do not know whether it is possible according to their constitution,” Geneva prosecutor Daniel Zappelli told the Associated Press, speaking in English. “If not, we can’t. Absolutely not. Period.”

Under pressure from the Supreme Court, the Pakistani government sent a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the case, government attorney Abid Zuberi said earlier Wednesday.

Mr. Zardari and his wife, Benazir Bhutto, were found guilty in absentia in a Geneva court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars. Swiss authorities abandoned the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government. The case was among the thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that was part of a power-sharing deal that allowed Bhutto to return from exile and contest elections. She was assassinated in Pakistan in December 2007.

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