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Pakistan lawmakers approve weakening of presidential powers

By Kiran Khalid, CNN
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari favors the measure to reduce federal powers.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari favors the measure to reduce federal powers.
  • Pakistan's National Assembly votes unanimously to pass the 18th Amendment
  • Measure includes stripping President Asif Ali Zardari of his ability to dissolve parliament
  • Removes much authority from federal level and gives it back to the provinces
  • NEW: Suspected suicide bombers attack police in North West Frontier province

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- In what political pundits are hailing as a historic moment for the troubled nation, Pakistan is one step closer to restoring the balance of power envisioned by its founders.

Pakistan's National Assembly voted unanimously Thursday to pass the 18th Amendment, a sweeping measure that includes stripping President Asif Ali Zardari of his ability to dissolve parliament. Zardari favors the measure.

The presidential ability to dissolve parliament was first inserted into the Constitution by the 8th Amendment, enacted under Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was eventually removed, but then was re-enacted by another military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in what is known as the 17th Amendment.

"This is a great advertisement for democracy in Pakistan," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, an English daily newspaper in Pakistan.

"There's always been [the impression] that this country has lacked a foundational document," Almeida told CNN after the historic vote. "All the other federations have had a core document. In Pakistan, we've had this yo-yo effect. We've gone from a total presidential form of government to a parliamentary form of government."

The 18th Amendment also changes the course of big government in Pakistan, removing much authority from the federal level and giving it back to the provinces.

But Almeida added that while it may appear that Zardari has weakened his hand, he still holds the cards because he remains at the helm of the country's ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party. "It's really unlikely that there will be a serious power shift in the presidency towards the prime minister's office," he said.

Nonetheless, Almeida said, while Zardari may enjoy a boost in popularity among the country's political elite for supporting the measure, his numbers aren't likely to change among the country's working class, who make the difference at the ballot box.

"At the end of the day, these structural procedural issues aren't vote-getters," Almeida said. "People care about jobs, [about] not having electricity, not having water. Is violence down? Is street crime down? Those are the vote-getters. The urban class aren't really arbiters of who gets elected."

The amendment still needs to pass through the upper house of parliament and be signed by Zardari before becoming law. But analysts say this first hurdle was the one that mattered because the opposition doesn't have the numbers in the Senate to defeat the measure.

Meanwhile, suspected suicide bombers attacked police with gunfire and grenades in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province on Friday, police said.

The attacks came after police were informed of a threat posed by four suicide bombers in Lakki Marwat, said district police officer Muhammad Ayub.

Police cordoned off an area to conduct a search when two of the suspected bombers hurled a hand grenade and opened fire in an engagement that lasted 40 minutes, Ayub said.

Both suspects died in the confrontation, he said. Police are still looking for the two other alleged bombers.

Journalist Nazar ul Islam contributed to this report.