ISLAMABAD // An amendment to Pakistan's constitution that would give the Supreme Court a major say in the appointment of new judges appears imminent after gaining overwhelming approval in the lower house of parliament.
The 19th constitutional amendment easily found the necessary support of two-thirds of members of the National Assembly, the directly elected lower house of parliament, on Wednesday with only one vote cast against it by an opposition MP.
The amendment bill has now been referred for approval to the Senate, the upper house, where Pakistan's four provinces are given equal representation. The Senate will vote on Thursday.
With all political parties supporting the legislation, the Senate's approval is a formality.
The amendment bill was tabled after the Supreme Court in October found fault with the composition of a commission, established under constitutional reforms enacted in April, to appoint new judges to the court.
The court also sought powers to overrule a parliamentary committee with the final power of approval in appointing judges.
Rather than rule the amendments unconstitutional, the Supreme Court had referred its observations to parliament, avoiding a potentially destabilising crisis for Pakistan's young democracy.
The judiciary's diplomacy was well received by the government, which immediately tasked a parliamentary committee on constitutional reforms with the review of the constitutional amendments referred to by the Supreme Court.
Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, hailed Wednesday's parliamentary vote as a turning point in relations between the government and judiciary.
"I compliment the role of the Supreme Court for referring the matter to the parliament for review. The judiciary has given the highest respect to parliament, and the parliament has reciprocated in the same manner," Mr Gilani told members of the National Assembly.
The institutions have clashed frequently since the February 2009 reinstatement of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Pervez Musharraf, the then president, had dismissed him in November 2007 for seeking to assert the judiciary's independence.
Mr Gilani's conciliatory tone reflected the government's acceptance of the Supreme Court's observation that the judiciary should have majority representation on the commission to appoint new judges.
However, the parliament retained its committee's power of final approval on appointments, without making its decisions subject to review by the Supreme Court, as it had recommended.
The swift passage of the amendment confirmed that the government has retained its ability to legislate, despite the December 14 withdrawal of a religious party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), from the ruling coalition.
The JUI, which draws support in the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, pulled out after one of its Cabinet ministers, Azam Khan Swati, was sacked.
The prime minister dismissed Mr Swati and another minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, from the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) after they disobeyed his orders to stop trading accusations of corruption over arrangements made for Pakistani pilgrims during the Haj.
The ruling coalition narrowly lost its numerical majority in the National Assembly as a consequence.
However, deep conflicts within the opposition, and the neutrality of independent MPs and one regional party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Functional), means it still has enough votes to legislate.
There has been no attempt to launch a vote of no confidence against Mr Gilani, who was unanimously elected prime minister by parliament after a general election in February 2008.
Following a meeting on Sunday with the president, Asif Ali Zardari - who is also the PPP chief - the JUI chief, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, decided against withdrawing from PPP-led regional coalition governments in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of the territory of Kashmir disputed by India and Pakistan.
A JUI withdrawal would have brought down the government in Balochistan, a province plagued by nationalist insurgency.
The JUI has also retained the chairmanship of the council of Islamic ideology, a federal government organisation that advises parliament on Sharia compliance of draft legislation.
Mr Zardari also mended fences with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a coalition partner based in urban areas of southern Sindh province, at a meeting on Monday.