Pakistan’s President is coming under increasing pressure from the powerful army and political opponents to resign or relinquish most of his powers, fuelling political turmoil just as the West wants the country to focus on the threat posed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.
An amnesty protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and several of his key allies from graft prosecution expired on Saturday, raising the possibility of legal challenges to his rule and triggering calls from the major Opposition party for him to step down.
Hours earlier, he relinquished command of the country’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister. He has said he would also give up some other powers inherited from his predecessor, former military leader and President Pervez Musharraf.
The upheaval comes as the Obama administration is expected to announce this week a new strategy for defeating the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s western border. Any new approach will need political stability in Pakistan to have any hope of succeeding.
A military coup to oust Mr. Zardari appears unlikely, as does impeachment, since he heads the largest party in Parliament. The Opposition has not called anti-government street rallies, perhaps wary of pushing the country into chaos and paving the way for another stint of military rule.
Mr. Zardari, 54, is languishing in opinion polls just 15 months after taking office. He has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led by his late wife, Benazir Bhutto.
He also has found himself locked in a power struggle with the powerful military, which has objected to his overtures towards nuclear-armed rival India and his acceptance of a multibillion dollar U.S. aid bill that came with conditions some fear impose controls over the army.
Mr. Zardari’s office said the decision to transfer control of the National Command Authority to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was a step towards ceding sweeping presidential powers that had been adopted by Mr. Musharraf. The authority comprises a group of top military and political leaders who would make any decision to deploy nuclear weapons.
In an interview on Friday with a local television station, Mr. Zardari said he was also likely to relinquish the authority he inherited from Mr. Musharraf to dissolve Parliament and appoint service chiefs by the end of this year - as the Ppposition and civic activists have long demanded.
That would reduce his job to a more ceremonial role, but would lesson some of the pressures on him to step down.
Speculation over Mr. Zardari’s future has escalated after he was forced to abandon an effort to get Parliament to approve the amnesty passed by Mr. Musharraf that granted more than 8,000 bureaucrats and politicians - including the president and many others from his Pakistan People’s Party - immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges.
The amnesty list was part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Prime Minister Bhutto to return from exile in 2007 and run for office safe in the knowledge she would not be dogged by corruption allegations. The U.S. and other Western nations supported the bid by Bhutto, who was seen as a secular and pro-Western politician.
But Bhutto, who was forced from her post twice in the 1990s because of alleged misrule and corruption, was killed by a suicide bomber shortly after she returned to Pakistan. Mr. Zardari took over as co-chairman of her party and was elected president in September 2008 by federal and regional lawmakers.