Friday, April 2, 2010

Pakistan tables long-awaited constitutional reforms

The Pakistani government introduced a constitutional bill in parliament Friday, transferring President Asif Ali Zardari's sweeping powers to the prime minister and possibly ending months of political wrangling.
The set of reforms, known as the "18th Amendment Bill" is expected to be passed by the two-chambered parliament, effectively turning Zardari into a titular head of state.

The development may help calm political opposition to Zardari, but the government is facing mounting pressure from an assertive Supreme Court to reopen corruption cases against the president after it threw out a controversial amnesty law in December.

"I suspect that after the signing of the 18th amendment, it (the unstable political environment) is going to change," said Samina Ahmed, South Asia director for the International Crisis Group. "Part of the problem is structural. Nobody knows where the locus of authority lies."

Because of that uncertainty, she said that all branches of government are trying to expand their powers at the expense of the others. "There's a little bit of muscle flexing all around," she said.

But if the 18th Amendment goes through smoothly, the center of authority goes to the parliament, "with the judiciary interpreting" -- possibly leading to a less assertive bench. "It will settle down," she predicted.

The proposed constitutional amendments transfer a number of the president's powers, including the authority to dissolve the national assembly and appoint military chiefs and the chief election commissioner. The bill also shifts Zardari's powers to appoint judges to a commission comprised of senior judges and government figures.

The bill is likely to be passed by far more than the two-thirds super-majority needed in the parliament because it has been drafted by a parliamentary committee made up of all political groups.

No date has been fixed when it will be adopted.

Syria 'Very Important' to Peace Efforts

U.S. Senator John Kerry met with officials in Syria Thursday, saying the country maintains a "very important" role in achieving peace in the Middle East.

Kerry spoke to reporters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, after meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the United States remains concerned about the flow of weapons through Syrian territory to the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah. He said the movement of weapons must stop in order to promote stability and security in the region.

The U.S. has long accused Syria of supporting Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The U.S. considers both groups terrorist organizations.

On Wednesday, Kerry held talks on Middle East peace efforts in Lebanon. He told Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri that he still hopes progress can be made in the coming weeks.

Kerry called the dispute between Palestinians and Israelis the "single most important" stability issue in the region.

The Obama administration has reached out to Syria in the past year by nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with the Syrian president.

The U.S. withdrew its last ambassador to Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Many countries have blamed Syria for the assassination, but Damascus has denied any involvement.