Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a sweeping Consitutional amendment into law yesterday, transferring much of his own power to the nation's traditionally weak Parliament. The amendment, by decentralizing the government and strengthening the Parliament as well provincial governments, stands to bring much-needed stability and openness to a state long plagued by autocracy and by the military's heavy influence. Pakistan's secretive and self-interested military -- long permiated by Islamist ideology and (until recently) driven by an agenda of dominating neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir via insurgent proxies -- has, as a rule either coerced the president or replaced him outright, as in the military coup that established the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf. As Pakistan's president and military have wrestled for power, they have dragged the state through periods of instability and corruption that has exaccerbated poverty and, at times, provoked domestic terror. Pakistan's volatility and political infighting also make it far more difficult for foreign diplomats to influence the state. As a lead player in the Afghanistan and Kashmir conflicts, Pakistan's international cooperation is essential. Today's amendment could bring new stability to the country, improving Pakistan's internal governance and ultimately aiding U.S. interests.
As authority shifts from the president to the Parliament, the military will likely have a far harder time exerting influence. Just how does the military pressure Pakistan's civilian leaders? A recent United Nations report on the 2007 assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accuses the military, with which Bhutto was on bad terms, of failing to properly protect her or investigate her death. The report does not name any suspects in her death but does, as the New York Times puts it, make "repeated references to the unchecked power of the military and its intelligence wing." That wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has long backed insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir, with the civilian government in Islamabad too afraid to do anything about it. President Zardari, Bhutto's widower, may finally be bringing accountability to the ISI by empowering Parliament to do what he could not.
Part of the reason why Pakistan's military has been effective at coercing the president and prime minister is that they are just two individuals. But the Parliament's sheer volume -- it has 436 members -- means the military now has hundreds of legislators it must lobby. With the Pakistani leadership now more decentralized and dispersed, the military will find fewer pressure points, and its influence may wane. U.S. policy in Pakistan since the Clinton administration has focused on convincing the military to reduce its reliance on insurgent proxies, including some Taliban leaders. Without a Pakistani civilian government that would join in pressuring the military, U.S. entreaties have been largely ineffective. There's no guarantee that the Parliament will take our side, but they will be freer to make that choice than any Pakistani president has ever been.