Zardari Called On To Relinquish Powers In Pakistan
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're going to report next on a small move inside Pakistan, but perhaps one with large implications. It involves Pakistan's nuclear program. In recent days, there's been a change in the country's nuclear command structure. President Asif Ali Zardari has ceded his position in that command structure to the country's prime minister. This happens as the president comes under pressure to surrender sweeping powers that were put in place by his predecessor, the former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. We are going to talk about this with NPR's Julie McCarthy, who's on the line from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. And Julie, how significant is this transfer of authority?
JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, interestingly, Steve, it appears to be more symbolism than substance. You know, Zardari occupied a civilian seat on the National Command Authority. Now the prime minister occupies that seat. The military is still very much in charge here. They're the ones that are going to be making the decisions about Pakistan's nuclear weapons: how to protect them, whether to launch them, when to move them, where to move them. But what's significant about this transfer of authority is the politics behind it. Analysts tend to see Zardari's decision to cede his seat as really a maneuver to politically survive as president. And there is a school of thought that says if by transferring power he can hang on as president, he will do it.
INSKEEP: What other powers, though, do his opponents want him to give up? He's under a lot of pressure right now, isn't he?
MCCARTHY: Yes, he is. I think the biggest one, Steve, is the power he has to dissolve the national assembly. You know, this whole debate is about restoring checks and balances to the system, ending the concentration of power and the presidency. The headlines are all about repealing a controversial amendment to the constitution that gave General Musharraf sweeping powers, and that Zardari inherited. Zardari said on Friday I'm going abolish that amendment in December. And the opposition leader said, well, we've heard that before from the president. They want him to act immediately on that.
INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Julie McCarthy in Islamabad. And Julie, I suppose we should remember that this is all happening in a situation where the United States is trying to shape a strategy toward neighboring Afghanistan, trying to prop up Pakistan's government. And I suppose one question for the United States is whether this politics has become a distraction.
MCCARTHY: Well, the worry in the United States is that they do become a distraction. And analysts will say here that certainly is a concern. Having said all that, you've got the politicians out in front, still talking about what's happening next door and expressing their reservations about what the United States may be up to next door. The Pakistan prime minister said this weekend that if additional troops are deployed in Afghanistan, the militants will spill over the border into Pakistan. And that's a scenario that many ordinary citizens and officials alike think could destabilize this country even further.
INSKEEP: Well, if there is a move of power away from President Zardari in Pakistan and toward his prime minister or toward the legislature, toward others in Pakistan, is that helpful in any way to the United States?
MCCARTHY: Well - Zardari has been seen as a real stalwart of the United States. In fact, the military dislikes him for, among other reasons, because they seen him as a little bit too close to the United States. They see him as a little bit too friendly to India. And they fear that these relationships are being skewed at their expense. The United States and President Zardari have talked about strengthening the civilian government, and that comes at the expense of the military. So there is tension there.
INSKEEP: And why have Zardari's opponents put pressure on him now?
MCCARTHY: Zardari is particularly vulnerable now for one very big reason, and that is that he has lost protection of a political amnesty program that expired just this weekend. Now this was a plan by General Musharraf to woo his opponents and thereby protect a lot of people, including Zardari and his wife, Benazir Bhutto. And it made it possible for her to return to Pakistan. She was killed, and her husband won election. Well, now that the amnesty has ended, Zardari could conceivably face trial on corruption charges that date back to the days when his wife was prime minister.
But, you know, the lifting of the amnesty opens other questions, like whether Zardari was even eligible to run for office in the first place. So it's seen as a kind of political Pandora's box.
INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Islamabad, Pakistan. Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
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