Ending Dictatorship: Pakistan's Eighteenth Amendment

Article excerpt

Unanimity rarely occurs in legislatures worldwide--even rarer, then, would it be to have two simultaneous unanimous votes. The 18th amendment to Pakistan's constitution thus carries the unusual distinction of being approved by all 292 members of the Pakistani National Assembly and all 90 senators of the Senate, on April 8 and 16 respectively, before President Asif Ali Zardari signed it into law on April 19. However, the total agreement in voting is merely an interesting aside. The passage of the amendment has drastic ramifications upon future presidential power, and significantly changes the Pakistani political landscape.

What constitutes an acceptable extent and usage of presidential power has long been a particularly controversial question in Pakistan. Former president Pervez Musharraf sought and wielded centralized executive power to his advantage, sowing resentment among others in the government. In November of 2007, when the Pakistani Supreme Court was preparing to rule on the legality of Musharraf's October election victory and decide if he could run for re-election while holding the position of army chief, he proclaimed a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, and fired more than 50 judges. He justified the act by stating that the judiciary was weakening Pakistan's anti-terrorism efforts by ill-informed decisions, such as its orders to release prisoners. Later, he claimed that the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was illegally trying to remove him from office. Most believed, however, that Musharraf was only doing what he could to prevent any possible challenges to his authority and continue on as president. The entire affair left behind an atmosphere of bitterness.

President Zardari has been much more open to revisions in presidential power, now implemented by the 18th amendment. The role of chief executive has been transferred from the president to the prime minister, turning the president into a ceremonial head of state. The president must follow more stringent requirements dictating when he must confer with the prime minister on given decisions. Authority has devolved to the provinces, allowing provincial assemblies to draft their own laws on various issues ranging from marriage to bankruptcy. The executive branch has greater difficulty in circumventing the legislative process thanks to the provisions of the new amendment. The Pakistani president no longer has the power to dissolve the General Assembly or appoint heads of the armed forces and judges. This last provision directly relates to Musharraf's actions in 2007--the power of appointment has now been handed over from the president to the parliament.

"Today it is the victory of democracy," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said after the second vote, expressing the elation many have felt around the country at the amendment's passing. …