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Pakistani Opposition Questions Rollback Of Federal Rights

FILE: Pakistan's opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai during an all parties conference in Islamabad in June 2019.
FILE: Pakistan's opposition parties leaders, from left, Maryam Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gillani, and Mahmood Khan Achakzai during an all parties conference in Islamabad in June 2019.

Opposition politicians in Pakistan are against the government’s effort to review a decade-old constitutional amendment that enhanced the country’s federal form of government, restored parliamentary democracy, and made it much more difficult to launch a military coup.

Opposition leaders have questioned the government’s motives in seeking to review and possibly roll back the 18th Constitutional Amendment as Pakistan struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Despite government claims, confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus infection, are rising after authorities relaxed a nationwide lockdown as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan began last week.

“Our nation is fighting against the coronavirus pandemic, and we need to unite against its economic fallout. [Under such circumstances,] no one can understand the logic behind creating a new conflict,” lawmaker Ahsan Iqbal, a senior leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), the largest opposition group, said in a video message on April 27.

“The 18th Amendment was adopted with the consensus of all the political parties, which still persists,” Iqbal noted. “Such policies and efforts [to review this amendment] are undermining our national unity.”

His sentiments were echoed by other opposition politicians.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the second-largest opposition group, warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration against misinterpreting the amendment. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party had criticized the PPP’s administration in the southern province of Sindh for trying to implement strict measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

“A country’s leadership is supposed to make difficult decisions when faced with a national crisis,” he told the BBC’s Urdu Service. “But for the first time, the federal government and the prime minister are trying to detach themselves from the provinces.”

Aimal Wali Khan, a senior leader of the secular Awami National Party in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, alluded to an attempt to resist the move. “We will not let anyone roll back the historic 18th amendment which gave autonomy and rights to the provinces,” he wrote on Twitter.

In a rare show of political unity, Iqbal’s PML-N, a conservative political party, joined forces with the liberal PPP, the ANP, and numerous smaller political parties to adopt the 18th Amendment in April 2010.

The compromise was remarkable in that it united political parties across the ideological divide and drew support from minority ethnic groups in all four provinces of Pakistan.

The PML-N draws most of its support from the eastern province of Punjab, which is the most populous among Pakistan’s provinces. Based on their numerical strength, Punjabis, the region’s predominant ethnic group, dominate Pakistan’s institutions and economy.

The PPP has governed the southern province of Sindh during most democratic dispensations since the 1970s. Pashtun and Baluch nationalist political parties from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan hailed the amendment as an important milestone in achieving provincial autonomy, which had been their longstanding demand.

Despite the opposition, the PTI is apparently intent on reviewing the amendment, which granted a greater share to provincial administration in national resources and devolved several ministries to the provinces. The change in supreme law also rolled back presidential powers to sack governments and empowered the prime minister to restore a parliamentary democracy.

In one of the most important moves to safeguard democracy, the amendment declared abrogating or subverting the constitution “high treason” and even stopped the judiciary from validating such moves.

Thus, the amendment effectively barred army generals from launching coups to capture power. Four army generals have ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its history since 1947. The judiciary repeatedly validated power grabs under the “doctrine of necessity” that argued coups were needed under Pakistan’s special circumstances.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi argued Islamabad is seeking to review the amendment because while it enabled provincial administrations to garner more resources and powers from the federal government, they were not distributed at the grassroots level.

“We do not want to do away with the 18th Amendment. ...We want to see whether it was implemented the way it was supposed to,” he told journalists on April 27.

Qureshi says the government will soon begin consulting with provincial governments and opposition political parties to review the changes.

But former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, one of the framers of the 18th Amendment, sees a larger force behind the push.

“[The] 18th Amendment has become the bulwark of the democratization process, hence the need for its rollback,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. Khattak alluded to Pakistan’s powerful military’s support for Khan’s PTI since 2014 when it staged a months-long sit-in protest in Islamabad in 2014 as part of a long-term effort to roll back the amendment.

“Another significant issue is the question of the distribution of national financial cake,” Khattak noted. “More money to the provinces means a smaller federal kitty which can endanger the huge allocation for military's expenditure from the federal budget.”

The military has repeatedly denied interfering in politics. But in 2018, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the powerful Pakistani army chief, reportedly indicated that rolling back the 18th Amendment was a key objective of the security establishment – a euphemism for top army generals.

“The perception is that the amendment has changed Pakistan from a federation to a confederation,” journalist Sohail Warraich noted while describing Bajwa’s vision for Pakistan.

But amending or undoing the amendment will require a two-thirds majority in the bicameral federal parliament. The ruling PTI currently has a wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly, or lower house, while it holds a minority in the Senate, or upper house.