Karzai gives in on battle with new parliament

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai, often accused of dictatorial ambitions, surrendered Saturday over when to inaugurate the country's new parliament after an angry tussle with lawmakers that had cast doubt over the country's fragile democracy.

During talks at the presidential palace, Karzai agreed to ditch the one-month postponement he had announced last week in the convening of the new parliament. Instead, parliament, which had been scheduled to start Sunday, will now open on Wednesday, lawmakers said.

The agreement averts what could have been a violent clash on Sunday. Some lawmakers had said they would force their way into the parliament building and unilaterally begin proceedings. Karzai had said a delay in starting parliament was needed so a special court he had established could investigate claims of fraud in the September 2010 polls.

The United Nations, on behalf of the international community here, had sided with parliament, expressing its "deep concern and surprise" at Karzai's decision to postpone the inauguration. Western diplomats believe the September vote, which saw many of Karzai's opponents win seats in the 249-member parliament, was marred with fraud. But they've argued that any challenges should be decided on a case-by-case basis while parliament conducts regular business.

Parliament members declared victory.

"We're the winners, because the president will inaugurate parliament on Wednesday, rather than us having to occupy parliament," said Qazi Nazeer Ahmad, a lawmaker from Herat who took part in the face-to-face negotiations with Karzai.

Under the agreement, Karzai will drop the special court but lawmakers will be subject to prosecution by Afghanistan's regular courts over any criminal charges that might be related to the election. Lawmakers had claimed that the special court to probe electoral fraud was illegal.

The consent of the parliamentarians to the deal still needs to be put into writing and signed off by Karzai, which is expected to happen Sunday. There was no comment from the president's office.

"We're happy that he 1/8Karzai3/8 accepted our request, with a delay of just three days in the inauguration," said Elay Ershad, elected to represent the nomadic Kochi people. "If some member of parliament has done something wrong, it is only right that it is followed up by the normal legal process."

Most of the 249 members of parliament appeared to have gathered at Kabul's iconic Intercontinental Hotel to discuss the negotiations. At one point, after a delegation of the lawmakers had returned from the presidential palace to brief the rest on the agreement reached, tempers frayed. There was shouting and pushing as the lawmakers discussed the issue, before apparently agreeing to accept the deal.

Part of the controversy over the elections is that Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and Karzai's natural constituency, were under-represented in the outcome of the vote.

A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the agreement was the best that could have been hoped for, given the seriousness of the institutional clash.

"This could still be seen as a bad deal for parliament. The threat of prosecution will be like a cloud hanging over members of parliament, which could be used (by Karzai) against them at any time," the diplomat said.

Daoud Sultanzoy, who lost his seat representing Ghazni, said he was outraged that the United States and the United Nations were pressing for parliament to convene as soon as possible, despite knowing that fraud took place.

"If Americans and Europeans have rights, so do we Afghans. We don't want the rest of the Afghans to join those fighting," said Sultanzoy. "This will put the last nail in the coffin of the Afghan peoples' trust in the international community."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)

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