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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

PAKISTAN: Constitutional crisis looms on the horizon

ISLAMABAD, 21 April 2003 (IRIN) - Six months after general elections and the restoration of representative rule in Pakistan, the legislature is barely functioning with the government and opposition at loggerheads over the Legal Framework Order (LFO) - constitutional amendments introduced by the country's powerful military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, in August last year.

"LFO gives Musharraf powers that no president or king in the world has," Senator Taj Haider, a spokesman for the opposition Pakistan People's Party, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.

Although, the LFO has effected many procedural changes to the constitution, such as reducing the minimum age for voters from 21 to 18 years, and bringing about a substantial increase in women's representation in parliament, it also gave sweeping powers to Musharraf, including the authority to dismiss an elected parliament and government. It sanctioned his election to the presidency for another five years after a referendum in April last year, which he won uncontested.

While elected under the LFO, Pakistan's strong opposition parties maintain that only an elected parliament has the right to amend the nation's three-decades-old constitution. "We think that the people of Pakistan have the right to rule their country. A single individual cannot force us to accept his will," Haider said. "On the first day when we took the oath, we made it clear that it was under the 1973 constitution, excluding LFO."

The nation of 140 million people has over five decades of its history been plagued by political crises, including military coups and changing the supreme laws. Seven years after its independence in 1954, the country adopted its first constitution, only to have it cancelled by its first military ruler, Gen Ayub Khan, in 1958. His 1962 constitution was in turn annulled by another military dictator, Gen Yahya Khan, in 1968 when popular protest forced Ayub to resign.

After the eastern wing of the country split off to become an independent country, Bangladesh, in 1970, the new Pakistan adopted its current constitution in 1973. However, many experts believe that scores of changes introduced by successive governments also changed many basic features of the supreme law.

Haider maintained that many inside the government were tacitly in agreement with their opposition on the need for changes in the supreme law. "The argument being forwarded by them is that 'yes, you are right, but if we press it too far, this man [Musharraf] will dissolve the assemblies and promulgate martial law in the country'," he said.

However, some in the government blame the opposition of not allowing the system to function smoothly. "We want to play our constitutional role, but the opposition is interested in something else," the country's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, said. Local media had recently reported that negotiations on the LFO between the treasury and opposition were stalled on the sensitive issue of allowing a military chief to remain president. Musharraf also continues to head the country's powerful army as a serving general.

Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group in Islamabad told IRIN that the real issue with the LFO was that it was unconstitutional. "You cannot change the supreme law in this particular manner and say that it will be considered legitimate," she said.

Experts believe that only an elected parliament has the right to introduce changes into the constitution with a two-thirds majority - a process which is set out in the constitution itself.

Samina Ahmed maintained that the distortions in the political system had resulted in an imbalance of power between the executive and the legislature. "All the distortions introduced into the constitution must be removed and the constitutional path must be followed," she stressed.

Other opposition politicians remain unequivocal on the issue. "We cannot allow an individual to change the constitution," Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a central leader of the Islamist coalition of Muttahida Majlis-e Amal, or United Council of Action, told IRIN from the northwestern city of Peshawar. "They have turned the parliament into a subservient institution, and we want to change that," he said.

He suggested that the LFO should be presented before the parliament for its members to ratify all decisions made by a two-thirds majority. Experts believe that with the ruling coalition leading with a few votes in the 342-member lower house of the parliament, evolving the necessary consensus remains elusive.

Themes: (IRIN) Governance



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