Pakistan’s president turned over command of the country’s nuclear arsenal to his political ally the prime minister and signalled he was ready to shed more power amid growing pressure to resign.
The move came as an amnesty protecting Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of others from corruption charges expired yesterday, risking political turmoil that could distract the US-allied nation from its fight against the Taliban and other militants near the Afghan border.
Mr Zardari, 54, enjoys general immunity from prosecution as president, but the supreme court could choose to challenge his eligibility for the post since the amnesty decree by ex-military leader General Pervez Musharraf was never passed into law.
Languishing in opinion polls, Mr Zardari has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to the governments of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto. He denies accusations that he took bribes that saddled him with the nickname “Mr 10 Per Cent”.
He has also found himself locked in a power struggle with the military, which has objected to his overtures towards rival nuclear neighbour India and acceptance of a multibillion-dollar US aid bill that came with conditions that some fear impose controls over the army.
Mr Zardari’s office said the decision to transfer control of the National Command Authority to prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was a step towards ceding sweeping presidential powers that had been adopted by his predecessor Mr Musharraf.
The authority comprises a group of top military and political leaders who would make any decision to deploy nuclear weapons.
Mr Gilani is a veteran politician and member of Mr Zardari’s own party. He spent five years in prison under Mr Musharraf’s regime, accused of cronyism and abusing his authority when serving as parliament’s speaker, despite a reputation for even-handedness in his treatment of opposition MPs. A higher court eventually overturned his conviction.
“He (Zardari) has taken the correct and democratic step and we will see many more steps taken by the president along these lines to empower the prime minister and to empower the parliament,” spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani said.
“He is giving up the dictatorial powers that Gen Musharraf – as an unelected leader – needed to keep himself in power.”
Mr Zardari also reissued 27 other Musharraf-era ordinances concerning the competition commission, defence housing and other matters before a midnight deadline set by the supreme court.
In an interview with Express News TV, Mr Zardari said he was also likely to give away authority he inherited from Mr Musharraf to dissolve parliament and appoint services chiefs by the end of this year, as the opposition has long demanded.
Doing that would weaken him politically and reduce the president to a more ceremonial role, but could reduce some of the pressures on him to step down.
A spokesman for the opposition party headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif called on Mr Zardari to resign despite his immunity.
“Asif Ali Zardari should take the high moral ground and resign so that his credibility will increase,” said Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Analysts said the transfer of authority signalled Mr Zardari’s willingness to divest powers as part of a compromise that would enable him to keep his job.
“It appears to be a self-defence and survival strategy,” said Rasool Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Science.
Speculation over Mr Zardari’s future has escalated after he was forced to abandon an effort to get parliament to approve the amnesty passed by Mr Musharraf that granted more than 8,000 government bureaucrats and politicians, including the president and many others from his Pakistan People’s Party, immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges.
The amnesty list was part of a US-backed deal to allow Mr Zardari’s late wife, former prime minister Ms Bhutto, to return from exile in 2007 and run for office safe in the knowledge she would not be
dogged by corruption allegations.
The US and other Western nations supported the bid by Ms Bhutto, who was seen as a secular and pro-Western politician.
But Ms Bhutto, who was forced from her post twice in the 1990s because of alleged misrule and corruption, was killed by a suicide bomber shortly after she returned to Pakistan.