April 19th, 2010
09:55 AM ET

Pakistani president voluntarily limits his powers

For the first time since the creation of the country, a Pakistani leader has voluntarily signed legislation that would diminish his powers rather than increasing them.

On Monday afternoon, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari signed the 18th Amendment to the constitution, making sweeping changes to his authority along with history.

"It is a historical day, it marks an important milestone in the struggle of our people on the road to democracy," Zardari said after signing the bill into law. The amendment is the first major constitutional reform package in 30 years.

Among the most significant changes established by the 18th Amendment, it takes away the president's power to sack the prime minster, dissolve the National Assembly and appoint heads of armed services. The 18th amendment also takes away the two term limit for prime ministers, opening the door to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to vie for a third term.

While marking a place in history for Zardari, the legislation also took steps to repudiate the actions of his predecessor, General Pervez Musharaf, declaring his November 3, 2007 state of emergency and sacking of the judiciary unconstitutional.

The law also mandates that anyone who attempts to use extra-judicial means to subvert the constitution will be guilty of high treason - a crime punishable by death in Pakistan.

"Indeed we have reason to feel proud," Zardari said to a room filled with rivals and supporters. "Ladies and gentlemen we have adopted national reconciliation as our compass."

Pakistan's National Assembly voted unanimously to pass the 18th Amendment.

The presidential ability to dissolve parliament was first inserted into the constitution by the 8th Amendment, enacted under Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was eventually removed, but then was re-enacted by Musharraf in what is known as the 17th Amendment.

"This is a great advertisement for democracy in Pakistan," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, an English daily newspaper in Pakistan.

"There's always been [the impression] that this country has lacked a foundational document," Almeida told CNN after the historic vote. "All the other federations have had a core document. In Pakistan, we've had this yo-yo effect. We've gone from a total presidential form of government to a parliamentary form of government."

The 18th Amendment also changes the course of big government in Pakistan, removing authority from the federal level and giving it back to the provinces.

But Almeida added that while it may appear that Zardari has weakened his hand, he still holds the cards because he remains at the helm of the country's ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party. "It's really unlikely that there will be a serious power shift in the presidency towards the prime minister's office," he said.

Nonetheless, Almeida said, while Zardari may enjoy a boost in popularity among the country's political elite for supporting the measure, his numbers aren't likely to change among the country's working class, who make the difference at the ballot box.

"At the end of the day, these structural procedural issues aren't vote-getters," Almeida said. "People care about jobs, [about] not having electricity, not having water. "Is violence down? Is street crime down? Those are the vote-getters. The urban class aren't really arbiters of who gets elected."

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