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Pakistan's Constitutional Reform

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
April 21, 2010

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In a significant move to strengthen its democratic institutions, Pakistan's political leaders have signed into law constitutional reforms (BBC) that include limiting the power of the presidency and restoring power to the provinces. Many hope the reforms will help the country tackle its many crises--security, economic, and political. Some experts in the United States also see constitutional reforms that support the implementation of the provincial autonomy provisions as essential to Pakistan's security, otherwise threatened by ethnic and separatist tensions.

Pakistan's stability is important to Washington, which depends on Pakistani cooperation to fight extremism and achieve its goals in Afghanistan. Washington acknowledges that economic and political reforms are essential to Pakistan's future and has promised aid and resources to "support civil society and electoral processes to help ensure the continuation of elected civilian government and constitutional rule." Yet some experts question whether a stronger parliament, empowered by the provisions of the eighteenth amendment, will prove an effective counterweight to the country's powerful military.

CFR's Pakistan expert Daniel Markey says the government's performance on issues of effective governance since it came to power two years ago remains disappointing. "Many important issues are still being decided by the military command, such as the nature of Pakistan's relationship with India and the United States," he says, "and much of Pakistan's foreign and defense policy remains heavily influenced by the military." Markey adds that it is unclear how the reforms will affect Pakistan's cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism and its goals in Afghanistan. Most analysts, he says, "see greater continuity than change in those areas, and the change they see is uncertain."

For now, many Pakistani analysts welcome the government's efforts to reverse constitutional changes made by former military chief and president Pervez Musharraf. The reforms include transfer of presidential powers to the parliament and the prime minister, including the right to appoint military chiefs and to dissolve an elected parliament. As this Backgrounder points out, Pakistan's constitution has been undermined by a pattern of military coups interspersed with short-lived civilian rule. The new constitutional amendment also extends the right to free and compulsory education for all, up to the age of sixteen, and the right to information. "If ways could be found to discharge this responsibility, and education is proper and meaningful, this will indeed be a great stride forward," writes Dawn columnist I.A. Rehman.

The amendment also promises devolution of powers from the center to the provinces, which could help address one of Pakistan's greatest challenges--establishing greater socioeconomic equality among its provinces and giving them more autonomy. These changes, along with a recent agreement on annual distribution of financial resources among the provinces, and reform measures for Balochistan province and Gilgit-Baltistan region "can be described as a turning point (Daily Times) in Pakistan's constitutional and political history," writes one Pakistani political analyst. Yet, constitutional provisions relating to distribution of revenues from natural resources between central government and the provinces may be challenging to implement (Dawn).

The constitutional reforms are not without controversy. Its provision renaming the North-West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa prompted violent protests by ethnic minority groups. Also controversial were provisions dropping each political party's constitutional obligation to hold intra-party elections, and mandating that the prime minister be a Muslim prompted criticism from Pakistan's liberals. Analysts hope Pakistan will continue to address political and legal reforms; the status of the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan is yet to be addressed, and Pakistan's polity and the military remain divided (RFE/RL) on what comes first: security or political and economic reforms.

Additional Analysis:

Michael Meyer-Resende and Hannah Roberts of Berlin-based Democracy Reporting International write that these reforms are a reflection of Pakistan's maturing democracy (Guardian).

This article by the Center for American Progress looks at the key aspects of the eighteenth amendment and notes observers will have to see how the country's interest groups respond to and reinterpret it.

Raza Rumi, writer and editor of the Friday Times, discusses whether the latest round of reforms will rekindle democracy (Tehelka) in Pakistan.

The Economist debates whether the new reforms are a constitutional settlement or a prelude to more trouble.

Background:

Read the text of Pakistan's constitution.

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