Pakistan: A Significant Constitutional Amendment

5 MINS READApr 9, 2010 | 12:18 GMT
The Pakistani parliament has unanimously approved an amendment to the constitution that re-establishes a parliamentary form of government rather than a presidential system. The move is being celebrated within the country as a watershed event in terms of rectifying the civil-military imbalance that has plagued the country for most of its existence. Though a significantly divided legislature reaching consensus on restoring the parliamentary form of government does indeed represent an important achievement, this does not mean Pakistan has put instability behind it.
Pakistan's parliament unanimously approved an 18th amendment to the Pakistani Constitution on April 8. The key aspect of the amendment — which contains nearly 100 clauses — is the restoration of the constitution to its 1973 form, in which Pakistan has a parliamentary form of government rather than the presidential type that existed during the Musharraf era. Another key change is that the president no longer enjoys the power to dismiss parliament, which has been the legal tool used to prevent previously elected governments from completing their term in office. Military governments have ruled the Pakistani state for 33 of its nearly 63 years. Whenever the military took power (1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999), it instituted a presidential form of government with the army chief also being the president. For example, former military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq used the 8th amendment to the Pakistani Constitution to dismiss parliament. Two of his civilian successors followed suit four times between 1988 and 1996. The 13th amendment, passed in 1997 during the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, did away with the president's authority to dismiss parliament. Two years later, however, Gen. Pervez Musharraf staged a coup ousting the Sharif government. After ruling the country as chief executive for 18 months, Musharraf assumed the presidency in 2002. He subsequently oversaw the passage of two dozen amendments to the constitution by decree and held a controversial parliamentary election, in which his allies managed to gain a majority in parliament. A year later, through a deal between his allies and an Islamist bloc, Musharraf got the parliament to approve his constitutional changes as part of the 17th amendment, instituting a presidential system in Pakistan. By the time the next parliamentary elections took place in early 2008, Musharraf was no longer army chief, and political unrest and a jihadist insurgency had weakened him. The current PPP-led coalition government later took power. Strengthening civilian elements forced Musharraf to resign the presidency in August 2008. The presidential form of government he had established remained in place, however, under current President Asif Ali Zardari. The opposition, especially Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, continued to demand the reversal of the Musharrafian amendments, and the ruling PPP — the country's largest democratic force — felt obligated to concur. Zardari, however, has been concerned that the drive toward a return to a parliamentary form of government would cost him control over the government. Zardari remains an extremely unpopular figure in Pakistan among the military-led security establishment, judiciary, media and civil society. Various quarters have sought to remove him from office via a concerted campaign employing judicial means throughout his presidency. Zardari, however, has managed to dodge the bullet. That his party spearheaded the 18th amendment has proven instrumental in securing his position as president. Zardari is calculating that as party chief he will still be calling the shots even though Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Reza Gilani will now emerge as a powerful chief executive by virtue of the 18th amendment. In practice, however, competition between a prime minister enjoying constitutional powers and a president who heads the ruling party seems inevitable. The fact that the country's establishment has close ties with the prime minister will complicate matters even further. It will allow the army to maintain its influence in policy matters, especially since the 18th amendment transfers the power of appointing top military commanders from the president back to the prime minister. Consequently, Gilani will be caught in a difficult situation trying to balance between his partisan commitments and his relationship with the military. At this early period of the new constitutional order, there is no immediate danger of problems arising between the president and prime minister. In fact, it is in the interest of the establishment to sustain the current setup given the current internal and external climate — i.e., poor economic conditions and the domestic and wider regional war against jihadism. Though the present political dispensation has another three years to go before the next elections, the potential for political instability remains and could result in early elections. Though in keeping with the constitutional order, early elections are disruptive as far as policy continuity is concerned. It is not clear that the current political configuration of liberal forces will be returned to power, or whether a right-wing government led by Sharif's PML will emerge victorious — or even whether a liberal-conservative coalition will emerge. This uncertainty complicates the domestic and regional counterinsurgency campaigns, especially in light of the short window of opportunity that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has to stabilize Afghanistan, something for which it needs stability in Pakistan. Ultimately, the 18th amendment is designed to provide greater political stability at a time when military coups are no longer a viable option for ensuring security in Pakistan. The extent to which the country's political forces will be able to use the reformed constitutional order to work with the military-intelligence complex to enhance security and stability and to improve economic conditions — especially at a time of great regional upheaval — remains to be seen.

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