The 1985 constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan provides for a federal parliamentary system which is democratic and Islamic, with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. The constitution was suspended by the military government after the coup of October 1999, and was partially restored in November 2002, following the parliamentary elections. The constitution was amended in December 2003, suspended in November 2007, restored in December 2007 and amended in April 2010.

Under the present constitution, the president (who must be a Muslim) is elected for a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of the members of both houses of parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) and of the four provincial assemblies. The president cannot be elected for more than two consecutive terms.

Until April 1997, the president had certain discretionary powers including the power to dissolve the National Assembly. These powers were restored by the military government immediately before the elections of October 2002, but under the eighteenth amendment of April 2010 the president’s role once again became largely ceremonial – the president lost the power to dismiss the prime minister or the parliament. The president generally acts on the advice of the prime minister, and the president can be impeached and removed from office by a two-thirds majority of the parliament.

The bicameral federal legislature consists of the National Assembly, with five-year terms, and the Senate. From 2002 the National Assembly had 342 members, comprising 272 members directly elected by adult suffrage, plus 60 women and ten representatives of minorities (non-Muslims). These seats reserved for women and minorities’ representatives are allocated proportionally to all parties gaining more than 5% of the directly elected seats.

The Senate is a permanent legislative body with 100 members (previously 87) elected for six years with about half of them retiring every three years. Each of the four provinces elects 22 senators, including four women and four technocrats; the remaining 12 are elected from the Federal Capital Territory and the tribal areas.

Legal constitutional change requires the support of two-thirds of the total membership of the National Assembly and the Senate.

Executive power is vested in the prime minister and the federal cabinet. The prime minister, generally the leader of the party or coalition with the most number of seats, is selected by a vote of the National Assembly. The president appoints the federal cabinet upon the advice of the prime minister.

Pakistan’s four provinces enjoy considerable autonomy. Each has a governor, a Council of Ministers and a provincial assembly whose members are elected by universal adult suffrage. There are reserved seats for minorities.

The Supreme Court is both the final court of appeal and the constitutional court. The Federal Sharia Court was established in 1980 to scrutinise the laws and ensure that they accord with Islamic values. There is a high court in Islamabad and in each province. Appeals arising from civil and criminal cases in a state are heard by the state high court.

District and sessions courts both have jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. Sessions courts are also trial courts for the most serious offences. There are magistrates’ courts in cities and towns throughout the country, and all but the most serious cases (for example where the death penalty applies) come before these courts in the first instance.

There are a number of other courts and tribunals specialising, for instance, in corruption cases, narcotics offences, financial crimes, consumer rights and industrial relations.