Karzai to open Afghan parliament after standoff

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has confirmed he will open parliament on Wednesday, ending a standoff with...

Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures before casting his vote at a polling station in Kabul on September 18, 2010. Picture: AFP.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has confirmed he will open parliament on Wednesday, ending a standoff with lawmakers that threatened to deteriorate into political chaos and strained ties with his Western backers.

An earlier decision by Karzai to delay the opening of the new parliament until mid-February, five months after the country voted, had plunged <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Afghanistan</country-region>’s government into crisis at a time of worsening insurgent violence.

Karzai granted extra time for investigations into widespread fraud during the September 18 election, which produced a larger and more coherent bloc of opposition lawmakers and cut the number of delegates from his Pashtun ethnic group.

But lawmakers, already frustrated by months of delays, threatened to open parliament with or without the president. The United Nations, <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">United States</country-region> and other international backers also expressed their deep concern in a joint statement.

Karzai then rowed back, making a tentative deal for a quick inauguration, although the two sides continued to argue over details for days, particularly the status of a special election court which triggered the crisis by seeking the delay.

Set up by Karzai, his critics say it is designed more to further his political aims than serve justice. Lawmakers say it is illegal and wanted it abolished, but Karzai clung onto it.

Late on Monday Karzai’s office said the Supreme Court had endorsed plans for parliament to open on Wednesday, just three days after the original date of January 23, and underlined the role of his special court, which reports to the Supreme Court.

"Respecting the decision of the High Council of the Supreme Court that all cases regarding the election will be reviewed by the judicial body and the special court, the president will inaugurate the national assembly on January 26," the statement said.

BLOW TO KARZAI?

Despite Karzai’s climbdown, he came out of the dispute well because the special election court will help him to control lawmakers, one Kabul-based Western official told Reuters.

"This might not be as big a blow to Karzai as it initially appears ... as long as he has a political Supreme Court (to which the special court reports), he can get what he wants."

The tribunal claims the power to unseat any candidate incriminated in vote-rigging, and in an election tainted by widespread corruption, few escaped without allegations, whether valid or not, against them.

Diplomats were still relieved at the decision to go ahead.

"Having lawmakers intimidated by the court is a possibility, but it’s better for <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Afghanistan</country-region> to have a weak parliament than no parliament," said one senior Western diplomat.

NATO, which leads a force of 150,000 troops in <country-region w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Afghanistan</country-region>, weighed in on Monday, saying the Western alliance needed a "timely opening of parliament" if it were to start handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces in February or March.

The West wants Karzai’s government to focus on improving security and governance in the face of an expanding insurgency that is killing foreign troops, Afghan forces and civilians at the highest rates since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

"It is a prerequisite for a successful transition that we have a stable political environment," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in <city w:st="on"><place w:st="on">Brussels.