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Pak lawmakers poised to pass landmark reforms

world Updated: Apr 08, 2010 19:45 IST

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Pakistani MPs took steps on Thursday towards approving landmark reforms that will strip President Asif Ali Zardari of key powers and strengthen a parliamentary democracy weakened by military rule.

The historic 18th amendment, which rolls back four decades of infringements by military rulers on Pakistan's 1973 parliamentary constitution, is widely expected to sail through parliament and pass into law as early as next week.

The package seeks to reverse sweeping powers amassed by former military dictators Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul Haq and could ease political instability in the nuclear-armed country on the front line of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda.

The national assembly, or lower house of parliament, on Thursday started a clause-by-clause discussion of the package to make them formally part of a bill which needs approval of the senate or upper house to become a law.

The MPs endorsed a clause which would strip Zardari of the power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament. Under the clause, he will also surrenders his power to appoint the head of Pakistan's powerful armed forces.

The bill also abolishes a clause which bars the election of a prime minister for more than two terms. This would allow Pakistan's popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who was toppled by Musharraf in 1999, to become premier again.

The bill, which grants greater autonomy to Pakistan's smaller provinces also renames North West Frontier Province, dating back to British colonial rule, Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, to honour the wishes of its Pashtun-majority population.

The lower parliament is expected to approve the entire 102-clause bill which runs to 62 pages in a vote later Thursday or early Friday. The bill will then pass to the senate for another vote scheduled to take place next week.

National assembly speaker Fahmida Mirza read out each clause in turn, asking lawmakers whether they agreed each should pass formally into the bill. Each time, the overwhelming majority of lawmakers stood up to signal their assent.

The reforms will effectively make 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.

Among other reforms, courts will no longer be able to endorse suspensions of the constitution, a judicial commission will appoint judges and the president will no longer be able to appoint the head of the election commission.

Supporters of the package say that devolving greater power to the provinces could address some of the grievances of Islamist and separatist insurgents who are destabilising NWFP and southwestern Baluchistan respectively.

Although the bill has been widely welcomed by the political elite and the media, it is unlikely to improve Zardari's popularity among the masses, who are wilting under crippling power cuts, inflation and fears of militancy.

It may also build pressure on the government to reopen graft cases against Zardari, although as co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party to which Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani belongs, the head of state will remain powerful.

In an address to parliament on Monday, Zardari asked lawmakers to approve the amendments without delay, hailing the package as a "crucial reform bill".

Although Zardari is immune from prosecution while in office, the supreme court is increasing pressure on the government to reopen scores of graft cases at home and abroad, after it scrapped an amnesty shielding politicians.

Tainted by corruption allegations, Zardari is nicknamed "Mr Ten Percent" and spent 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder, although his supporters point out that he was never convicted on those charges.