Omar Waraich: Blasts put Zardari's aim in grim context

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As President Asif Ali Zardari pushed a package designed to promote political stability in Pakistan yesterday, there were two more brutal reminders of why that scarce commodity is urgently needed.

Apparently timed to coincide with the President's address to a joint session of parliament in Islamabad, the attacks can only strengthen the case for the proposed constitutional changes that would shift most of the president's powers to the prime minister. But, as security was stepped up for the unpopular leader's speech yesterday, many will have reflected that the benefits of the changes will be painfully slow in materialising.

After much political wrangling, the wide-ranging constitutional reform package has the united backing of Pakistan's political class. And even as it effaces the disfigurements of General Pervez Musharraf's military rule, it weakens his successor. Upon its passage, the President will be stripped of key powers, foremost among them is the power to dissolve parliament. The package also erects a barrier to prospective dictators, holding anyone who suspends the constitution guilty of high treason.

Mr Zardari's power will be greatly reduced as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani becomes the undisputed head of government. But Mr Zardari will retain crucial political influence, and may have enhanced his public standing.

The presidency afforded Mr Zardari the protocol of a head of state, but his true clout derives from being the head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. The Prime Minister and the Government will remain amenable to his decisions.

Still, survival has come at a cost. Mr Zardari's receding into the background is merely the latest chapter in a slow erosion of the Government's overall authority.

And while Mr Zardari can breathe easily for the moment, challenges to his rule are unlikely to fade. The irascible Supreme Court is poised to rule on his eligibility as President, and his right to serve in that post and head a political party at the same time. In the meantime, the militant forces on the loose in the country's northwest will remain unpredictable and dangerous. Mr Zardari's power may have lessened, but his problems remain as intractable as ever.

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