Pakistan's elected politicians have risen admirably above their zero-sum approach to forge a cross-party consensus on a set of constitutional reforms that hold the promise of strengthening democratic governance. The centrepiece of these reforms, known collectively as the 18th amendment, is the transfer of executive powers from the President to the Prime Minister. It will bring the system closer to the parliamentary democracy envisioned in the original 1973 Constitution before General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf introduced distortions to reinforce their presidencies. In proposing the repeal of the Musharraf-era 17th Amendment, the reforms tabled in the National Assembly last week seek to strip the President of the powers to dissolve Parliament and appoint the three service chiefs and governors, thus rendering his role ceremonial. It was thought that President Asif Ali Zardari would never agree to the reforms. He can now justifiably take credit for keeping a longstanding PPP promise. For going through with a process that affects its leadership directly, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is likely to regain some of its lost shine. The opposition Pakistan Muslim League(N) can take credit for keeping up political pressure on the PPP towards this end. Although the party's last-minute disagreements with some aspects of the package delayed the tabling by a week, the PML(N) leader, Nawaz Sharif, should be happy as it does away with a two-term bar on the prime ministership. The Pakistan Army, which has an uneasy relationship with Mr. Zardari, must be pleased too.
In the longer term, the proposed changes will make it difficult for an Army chief to manipulate the presidency and get an elected government dismissed. But it can also be argued that this leaves a politically ambitious general with no option other than the martial law, although under the proposed changes, “suspension” of the Constitution will count as high treason along with subversion. Anyhow, the Pakistan Army is not expected to become less powerful unless elected politicians can prise away from it the right to frame policy on crucial issues such as national security and foreign policy. The main question now is if President Zardari can capitalise on the political goodwill earned for giving up his powers and survive his ongoing battle with the judiciary. The Pakistan Supreme Court's insistence that the government ask Swiss authorities to reopen money laundering cases against Mr. Zardari (closed in 2007 under the now-annulled National Reconciliation Ordinance) is a move to force an interpretation on presidential immunity against prosecution. It is unfortunate that Pakistan's political instability never seems to abate.