Karzai yields on opening parliament, but still fights for court

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 24, 2011 

KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai bowed Monday to domestic and international pressure to convene parliament, but he continued his battle with lawmakers over a special court he'd sought to investigate voting fraud allegations against members of parliament.

Karzai's announcement that he'll inaugurate parliament Wednesday ended a four-month limbo for the institution since the elections, but his refusal to scrap the special court heralds more fights with a parliament that's finding its voice, a clash that could become an epic battle.

Lawmakers will meet Tuesday to consider whether to continue their rebellion against the presidency or take their seats in parliament and then try to tackle the special court, which they see as a means of scotching opposition in parliament.

The U.S. government, its NATO allies and top U.N. officials expressed deep concern that the continued delays in the start of the new parliament were undercutting constitutional government in Afghanistan. NATO-led international forces plan to start handing over responsibility for security to Afghan troops this year, but the plan depends on political stability.

"It is a prerequisite for a successful transition that we have a stable political environment," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday in Brussels. "That is why I have stressed the need for a timely opening of parliament."

The fight between president and parliament came to a head last week when Karzai announced a one-month delay in the inauguration of parliament, which had been due Sunday. Lawmakers responded by threatening to start parliamentary proceedings unilaterally. They then agreed to a shorter delay, with 200 of the 249 elected members demanding in a letter to the president that parliament be convened Wednesday.

A statement from Karzai's office Monday said that while he'd open parliament Wednesday, electoral disputes would be "investigated by the judicial forces and the special court." Lawmakers say that the court, set up to probe allegations of electoral fraud, is illegal and could be used to disqualify strong opposition members from parliament.

"Karzai's going to get hurt. He's turned the whole parliament against him. They are all very unhappy," said one lawmaker, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

It remains to be seen whether that unhappiness translates into a fierce challenge to Karzai in parliament. One Western diplomat, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with journalists, said he expected the president to deploy his usual "divide and conquer" tactic with lawmakers, buying off some and intimidating others.

"He's inaugurating, which is good, but this thing is going to come back to haunt us in a week or two, when the investigations (by the special court) begin. Then it will get messy," the diplomat said. "But the thing is, if members speak up for those being investigated, they risk coming under investigation themselves."

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

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