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Asia-pacific

Senate votes to strip president of key powers

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-04-15

Pakistani lawmakers have approved constitutional amendments stripping President Asif Ali Zardari (pictured) of the power to dissolve parliament, in a move Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani hailed as a "victory of democracy".

REUTERS - Pakistan's upper house Senate passed on Thursday constitutional amendments stripping unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari of his main powers and handing them to the prime minister and parliament.

The reforms, which the lower house of parliament approved unanimously last week, should go some way to disarming Zardari's many critics and contribute to political stability.

Zardari has backed the reforms though some of his opponents doubted he would let them pass. He must now sign them into law.

"Today, democracy has won," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told the Senate soon after the vote.

"It's the first time the president, prime minister and both houses of parliament are on one page," said Gilani, a top official in the president's ruling party.

The charter changes, crafted by parliamentarians from both ruling and opposition parties, will turn Zardari into a ceremonial head of state.

The main powers he is giving up are the power to dissolve parliament and appoint top armed forces chiefs and judges.

But analysts say Zardari will retain much influence as leader of the ruling party.

These presidential powers were introduced by military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s to keep control of the government.

Presidents used the power to dissolve the National Assembly four times in the late 1980s and 1990s to oust elected civilian governments.

Optimism

Though Zardari and the newly empowered Gilani are party allies, rumours of tension between them have occasionally surfaced since their government took power in 2008.

"The fact that Zardari is chief of the ruling party and Gilani is the country's constitutional chief executive does create the potential for struggle between the two," said Kamran Bokhari of intelligence firm STRATFOR.

But for now the changes are likely to promote stability, although the president could still face legal challenges to his eligibility to have stood for office in 2008 because of old graft charges he says were politically motivated.

The reforms come after a year of security force campaigns against al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in the northwest, in which the military has made significant gains.

While the militants have shown they can launch attacks in even the most tightly guarded areas, the military successes have largely dispelled fears Pakistan was drifting into chaos.

Optimism has been reflected in Pakistan's stock market, where the main index is at levels not seen since 2008, supported by foreign buying. The reforms could also bring the possibility of fresh challenges to the government from main opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, who served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, had long been demanding the amendments which include the rescinding of a ban on a third term as prime minister.

That clears the way back to office for Sharif, who polls show is the country's most popular politician. But if he doesn't want to wait until the next election in 2013, he might try to engineer early polls.

Zardari's Pakistan People's Party-led coalition holds a comfortable majority in parliament, so the only way for Sharif to bring the election forward would be to launch protests in the hope of forcing a dissolution of parliament.

But analysts do not expect him to do that. Chaos in the streets could invite military intervention and the end of democratic rule, which would defeat Sharif's purpose.

Under the reforms, the North West Frontier Province will be renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa to reflect the majority community of Pashtuns.

But that has enraged non-Pashtun Hindko-speakers, who have launched violent protests to demand their own province.

Date created : 2010-04-15

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