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Opposition seeks to reduce Zardari’s powers

March 19, 2009

By Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad and Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 19 2009Pakistan’s main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday launched a fresh offensive against president Asif Ali Zardari,this time seeking to dismantle presidential powers to dissolve the parliament. Seizing the initiative after the success of recent anti-government protests, Mr Sharif said he had already spoken to Yusuf Raza Gilani , prime minister, seeking an agreement between the ruling party and the opposition on abolishing the 17th amendment of the constitution.

The amendment allows the president to dissolve the parliament, appoint an interim government for up to 90 days and call fresh parliamentary elections.

“We have talked to the prime minister and now the 17th amendment will be abolished,” said Mr Sharif. While there was no immediate official comment from the government, one minister from Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s party (PPP) said the initiative “was likely to be welcomed by many MPs including those from the PPP. No one in the parliament likes to have their tenure cut short”.

Mr Zardari’s hold on power has already been significantly weakened after he was forced on Sunday to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary as chief justice of the supreme court. The move followed nationwide protests led by Mr Sharif’s followers from his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and members of a national movement of lawyers. The constitutional change would see a further erosion of his power.

“We have seen many times in the past when the parliament has been taken for granted” said Sartaj Aziz, Mr Sharif’s former finance minister in the 1990s when the 17th amendment was used by presidents to dissolve three different elected parliaments. “There has to be an attempt to redress the balance of power in favour of the parliament”.

However, western diplomats and long term political observers warned, dismantling the presidential powers, though important for Pakistan’s democratic development, also carried risks for the country.

“The powers to dissolve the parliament have always been a very vital pressure valve to take out the steam. Instead of having a full-blown military coup, this was the way to take out regimes that the military ended up disapproving, and the generals would simply advise the president to take them (elected regimes) out,” said one western diplomat in Islamabad.

In spite of the unstable political situation, Eni, the Italian oil and gas group, announced on Wednesday that it had reached a preliminary agreement with the Pakistani government to develop “new important projects”, from upstream to downstream.

Eni, present in Pakistan since 2000, said it would become a “strategic partner” in developing Pakistan’s energy sector and enter fields managed so far by state-run companies.

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