LAHORE // The man with his finger on Pakistan's nuclear button is no longer the country's president, Asif Ali Zardari. This week, the National Assembly, swiftly and almost unanimously, passed a law shifting control of the National Command Authority from the president to the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and effectively making Mr Gilani the final authority on when, if ever, to activate the country's nuclear power.
"It's an extremely important change because the NCA is the final command authority in Pakistan for our nuclear arsenal and it gives Gilani more credibility and powers," said Asadullah Ghalib, a Lahore-based political analyst. "It also makes Gilani a major player as far as interactions with the military are concerned since the army is responsible for providing day-to-day nuclear security, and for executing any decisions taken on the usage of our nuclear arsenal."
Although the bill was only recently past, Mr Zardari agreed in November last year to take his name off the NCA, as he came under increasing pressure to resign. The National Command Authority was established in 2000 by the then-president, Pervez Musharraf, who at the time was also the army chief. It is a small and elite group made up of an employment control committee, a development control committee and a strategic plans division that acts as its secretariat. The various military branch chiefs (army, navy and air force) along with members of the foreign ministry and technical experts are all part of the group. Though the head of the NCA is a civilian - previously the president - the group includes a good number of military personnel.
The change of command of the NCA is part of wider efforts to trim the powers of the president but is also reflective of Mr Zardari's growing unpopularity both among the public and within his own party. Even before he assumed office he was plagued by accusations of corruption and immoral conduct. Soon after he was elected he was accused by the opposition, including his political rival Nawaz Sharif, of failing to deliver on a promise to repeal a constitutional amendment that gives the president sweeping powers.
"Nawaz Sharif really used the moral card well to impart near-fatal blows on Zardari's reputation by constantly badgering him on his failure to repeal the 17th amendment and restore the judiciary," said Hassan Askari, a political analyst. "That was the beginning of the president's popular decline." The president's refusal to reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary markedly reduced his popularity and almost undid all the goodwill he had earned by compelling Mr Musharraf to resign as president.
But the worst damage has come since the Supreme Court decided to end an amnesty shielding politicians from prosecution. As the court begins to re-examine hundreds of charges of corruption, money laundering and other alleged crimes, there are growing calls for Mr Zardari to also face prosecution, although as president he retains immunity. Up until recently, Mr Zardari had shrugged off the attacks. But in past weeks he has marked difference in his response. Last month, he made a much publicised visit to Punjab - the heart of the main opposition PML-N party - where he donned local dress and gave his first speech in Punjabi, promising to spend a week every month in this province.
Even handing control of the NCA to the prime minister was a move calculated to curry favour with his ruling Pakistan People's Party. "It was the really senior members of the Pakistan People's Party who convinced him that doing so would actually save the PPP and maybe this government," said a member of the PPP who did not wish to be identified. "It is becoming obvious to us that the wave of public support [we had when] we assumed office is no longer with us, and we need to start making amends to change this scenario."
Asif Ezdi, a political analyst, said a much overlooked aspect of the NCA switch was the increased role of the joint chief of army staffs. "Previously the NCA was a civilian set-up with military officers as part of the team but now with the bigger role given to the JCA, it has given the military a lot more say in when to push the nuclear button," he said. "It's a subtle change and one which hasn't been discussed greatly but an important one."
A source within Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, said it was the army who convinced the president to hand over control. "A major reason for Zardari agreeing to this shift was because the military insisted on it," said the source. "The military is more comfortable with Gilani than Zardari, and also felt it was time for the presidency to start acting on some of the promises made by them."
But other analysts hailed the shift. "It is a very positive change and shows that the spirit of democracy has arrived in Pakistan in its entirety," said Islamabad-based analyst Akram Zaki. "The powers usurped by the president are now slowly but surely being returned to the prime minister - the president of Pakistan will soon be more of a symbolic office charged with overseeing the government rather than running the government."
There has been no reaction from Washington on the handover, although one source in the PPP said the Americans were not delighted by it. "The Americans have a greater comfort level dealing with Zardari given his definite pro-US stance," said the source. "Gilani is a harder nut to crack and it gives them some degree of discomfort knowing that he is now in charge of the country's most essential asset.
"But since the possibility of someone actually pushing the button is very hypothetical, it's not an issue greatly bothering the Americans." * The National