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Zardari facing another debacle

Nirupama Subramanian


PPP to table controversial Ordinance

Opposition sees chance to cut executive powers


ISLAMABAD: Another political storm is brewing for President Asif Ali Zardari as his Pakistan People’s Party government prepares to bring the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance for approval by Parliament in a session that began on Monday.

The NRO was promulgated by the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, in October 2007. It was widely criticised as a law that legitimised corruption as it aimed mainly at providing amnesty to Benazir Bhutto from the corruption cases against her and enabled her return to the country ahead of the February 2008 elections.

In its drafting, however, it is a more general law providing amnesty for all those charged under “politically motivated cases” for a two-decade period from January 1986 to October 1999. It also contains provisions for free and fair elections.

Mr. Zardari, who, along with his late wife Benazir, was also facing a number of corruption charges, is one of the beneficiaries of the ordinance. So are some other members of the PPP government.

In July, the Supreme Court, while ruling against the emergency proclaimed by General (retired) Musharraf in October 2007, directed that 37 ordinances, including the NRO should be tabled in the National Assembly for its approval by the end of November.

A parliamentary committee on law approved the NRO last week and government spokesman Fauzia Wahab said on Monday that the ordinance would now be sent to the Assembly for endorsement.

But the PPP, which does not have a majority of its own in the House, is fast losing political ground on the issue and there is once again talk of a “threat to democracy”. In a swiftly developing political situation, Mr. Zardari stands isolated once again.

The situation today is somewhat similar to the one the government faced in March this year, over the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.

Bargaining chip

This time, opposition parties are clearly hoping to use the NRO as a bargaining chip to force Mr. Zardari to give up the executive powers of the presidency, which he inherited from Musharraf-era amendments to the Constitution.

In addition, the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League (N), is looking for an amendment to a law that prevents a two-time Prime Minister from getting a third term in the office.

At a press conference on Monday, Mr. Sharif said the NRO was a “black law” and Parliament would be forever “stained” by it if it was passed.

“Every member of my party will vote against it,” he said.

The PML(Q) has also said it will oppose the NRO. But most worryingly for Mr. Zardari, one of its main allies and coalition partners, the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement, has also made public its opposition to the ordinance.

As the National Assembly session opened on Monday evening, the London-based leader of the party, Altaf Hussain dropped his bombshell.

He said in an interview to a television channel that he had advised Mr. Zardari to “make sacrifices” for the sake of the “stability” of the political system. Mr. Hussain hinted he was prepared for a compromise on the issue if Mr. Zardari gave up powers he had inherited from the Musharraf-era 17th amendment.

Parliamentarians from the tribal areas, who are allied with the PPP, have also expressed their opposition to the NRO. The Awami National Party is the only PPP ally to say it has not yet made up its mind on the issue, but its support will not be sufficient to have the law passed.

With its support base dwindling in the National Assembly, it is doubtful the government can go ahead with the vote on the ordinance. It may choose to let it lapse instead, but that too is a route fraught with risks, and will strengthen the hands of anti-NRO petitioners in the Supreme Court. Three petitions are already before the court, and awaiting hearing.

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