ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's parliament yesterday passed an historic constitutional amendment that gives US-backed President Gen Pervez Musharraf extraordinary powers in return for a promise that he will quit his army post by the end of next year.
Supporters hailed the legislation as a return to democracy, while opponents staged a walkout and decried the deal as window-dressing on what they say is essentially military rule.
The vote came five days after a surprise deal between Musharraf and a hardline Islamic political bloc, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, which has been highly critical of the US led war in neighbouring Afghanistan, and voiced support for that country's ousted Taliban regime.
The deal will allow Musharraf to serve out his term as president, which ends in 2007, and formalise special powers he had decreed himself giving him the right to sack the prime minister and disband parliament by decree.
In return, Musharraf agreed to step down as army chief, the main source of his power, by Dec 31, 2004.
The approval of these constitutional amendments is the beginning of real democracy in Pakistan,'' said Azeem Chaudhry, a spokesman for Musharraf's ruling PML-Q party.
Opposition lawmakers were unconvinced and a large bloc walked out of yesterday's session, allowing the legislation the 17th amendment made to Pakistan's 1973 constitution to pass by a vote of 248-0.
By approving these amendments, the ruling party and MMA have re-imposed military rule,'' said Ahsan Iqbal, chief co-ordinator of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party.
They are taking us backward as far as the evolution of democracy is concerned.''
The amendment must now go to the Senate, but approval there possibly as early as today is seen as a formality.
Musharraf would then seek a vote of confidence which is assured of passage because of the MMA support.
The general, who came to power in a 1999 military coup, has become a key ally in the US war on terrorism, backing American military action in Afghanistan and arresting more than 500 al-Qaida suspects in his own territory.
Under the agreement, Musharraf was forced to scale back somewhat the extraordinary powers he decreed himself.
He must now consult the prime minister before sacking him, and he must seek approval from the Supreme Court within 15 days of taking such action.
The bill ended a yearlong stalemate that has paralysed parliament.
Opposition legislators led by the MMA had blocked most debate since late 2002, shouting down speakers, and staging mass walkouts.
The deal was a strange marriage of convenience between Musharraf and the religious coalition. AP