By Raja Asghar
Tuesday, 06 Apr, 2010
ISLAMABAD: Despite prophets of doom, President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday saw himself on the verge of a place in history, for which he asked parliament to make no delay in passing proposed constitutional reforms that will take some of his key powers to empower itself and restore a genuine parliamentary democracy.
In his third address to a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate in one-and-a-half years of his presidency, he called himself custodian of the legacy of executed former prime minister and his father-in-law Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto with “my eyes on history.”
“By standing in their shadows today and empowering the parliament, I hope to walk into the annals of history, InshaAllah,” the president said, referring to landmark constitutional amendments proposed by an all-parties parliamentary committee led by his ruling PPP and due to be taken up as the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Bill by the two houses during their new sessions beginning on Tuesday.
“I call upon the parliament to pass the eighteenth constitutional amendment bill without delay,” he said about the draft that, besides other things, seeks to clip the presidency of some of the usually prime ministerial powers arbitrarily assumed by former president Pervez Musharraf such as dissolution of the National Assembly and appointment of armed forces’ chiefs and provincial governors and to enhance provincial autonomy.
The implementation of these reforms — part of a 2006 Charter of Democracy signed by Benazir Bhutto and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif — would make Mr Zardari the first Pakistani president to willingly surrender powers to parliament to become a figurehead after widespread skepticism of critics about whether he would let it happen and waves of what his party sees as inspired adverse speculations about his political future.
“The people of Pakistan are keenly watching and waiting for this crucial reforms bill to pass,” said the president, who has often rejected such speculations and who seemed referring to his troubles with two previous regimes by recalling in his speech his own one-time remark that “I have walked from the gallows to the presidency. This initiative must lead to new beginnings.”
Mr Zardari’s 25-minute speech was repeatedly cheered by desk-thumping by members of the PPP and its allies though some opposition figures, such as PML-N’s opposition leader in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and PML-Q’s opposition leader in the Senate Wasim Sajjad, seemed unmoved even when the president repeatedly referred to a collective success in formulating the constitutional reforms during nine months of hard work by the 26-member parliamentary committee headed by PPP Senator Raza Rabbani.
“There were anxious moments when some people feared that we had failed,” he noted and said: “But collectively we were able to resolve differences, making history by restoring the 1973 Constitution, and more.”
The sitting was chaired by National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, whom the president congratulated as the first woman speaker in the Muslim world to preside over such historic changes. The guests in the galleries included armed forces’ chiefs, provincial governors and heads of diplomatic missions in Islamabad.
The president cited the consensus on constitutional reforms, fight against militancy, a reforms package for Balochistan and a new National Finance Commission award as the most important achievement under the PPP-led coalition government — though he said the constitutional package was “not a favour to anyone” but a national duty for which he congratulated all parties in parliament for rising “above partisan politics in an unprecedented show of national solidarity.”
He recalled Pakistan’s history of subversions of the Constitution such as by military coups of 1977 and 1999 that toppled then prime ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — who was later executed — and Nawaz Sharif respectively, and “sadder still” validations by the “pillars of the state,” and, in reference to the amendments, said: “The nation can take pride that it has closed that sorry chapter.”
But he acknowledged difficulties in tackling economic problems with rising prices and squeezed incomes and power and water shortages.
Fight To The Finish
Calling militancy and extremism the “greatest threat to our national security in recent times,” he said: “I assure you we will fight to the finish.”
He reiterated the government’s policy to make peace with those willing to give up violence and use force against those challenging the writ of the state and said: “I assure you that the sovereignty of Pakistan has been protected and solemnly pledge that it will be safeguarded at all costs.”
Among some planned measures, the president said reforms for Fata and amendments to the British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations for the area had been finalised after consultation with “stakeholders” and “will be soon implemented.”
Also, modalities of giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote in national elections “will soon be finalized,” he said.
The president said Pakistan sought a stable regional environment, with ties with China remaining “the bedrock of our foreign policy,” and would give strong support for an “Afghan-led reconciliation and reconstruction process” in Afghanistan.
He said Pakistan considered it essential to normalise relations with India and wanted an honourable and peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes, including the water issue and the “core issue of Jammu and Kashmir”, and sought no arms race though “a disproportionate increase in military budget by the largest democracy does not help the cause of arms reduction.”
“We greatly value our relations with all Muslim countries and will continue to strive for enhanced ties with them,” he said.
The president said partnership with the United States and Europe had strengthened over the past year “in sharp contrast to the isolation we inherited,” adding that the strategic dialogue with Washington was aimed at “addressing core issues of Pakistan,” while he welcomed President Barack Obama’s “new initiatives towards Pakistan.”