- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday signed into law sweeping constitutional reforms that strip him of key powers in a move to bolster parliamentary democracy weakened by military rule.

The constitutional amendment rolls back decades of meddling by military rulers and removes the head of state’s power to sack the prime minister, appoint heads of the armed forces, unilaterally declare emergency rule and dissolve parliament.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani will assume executive power in a move that could help ease simmering political instability in the nuclear-armed country on the front line of the U.S.-led war on al Qaeda and Islamist extremism.

A smiling Mr. Zardari signed the amendment at a ceremony attended by Mr. Gilani and popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif — a sign of the rare cross-party support for the bill in the fractious and bitter world of Pakistani politics.

“It is my hope that the doors of dictatorship are closed forever,” Mr. Zardari said after signing the 18th amendment to Pakistan’s 1973 parliamentary constitution.

“We have reason to feel proud … provincial rights and parliament’s sovereignty have been restored,” he told dignitaries gathered at his offices.

Mr. Gilani also hailed the signing of the bill as a “momentous occasion” and praised beleaguered Mr. Zardari’s “magnanimity.”

“It is an unprecedented event in the political history of Pakistan that a leader has willingly transferred power in such a smooth process,” he said. “[The] passing of the 18th Constitutional Amendment Bill is indeed a historic success of parliamentary democracy and supremacy of parliament.”

The lower and upper houses of parliament this month approved the 102-clause bill. The amendment was an election promise of Mr. Zardari, whose popularity has been battered by graft controversies, Islamist violence and economic woes.

The package removes many of the sweeping powers amassed by military dictators Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul Haq, although the army remains a powerful force in Pakistan. No senior military officials attended Monday’s ceremony.

Raza Rabbani, a senator and chairman of the constitutional reforms committee, said the 1973 charter “had been mutilated by successive dictators who sought to perpetuate themselves in power.”

The amendment also abolishes a clause barring the election of a prime minister for more than two terms. This would allow the popular Mr. Sharif, who was toppled by Mr. Musharraf in 1999, to become prime minister again.

The amendment effectively makes Mr. Zardari a titular head of state who can only formally appoint heads of the armed forces, dissolve the national assembly and appoint provincial governors on the advice of the prime minister.

Mr. Zardari assumed the presidency from Mr. Musharraf after his Pakistan People’s Party won elections in February 2008.

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