Afghan president says parliament to open Wednesday

Afghanistan’s president said Monday he will honor a deal not to further delay the inauguration of the country’s new parliament, a decision that appeared to end a standoff with incoming lawmakers that had threatened to spark a constitutional crisis. Hamid Karzai, however, rejected the lawmakers’ other demand to dissolve a disputed tribunal investigating allegations of fraud in September’s parliamentary election. “The Supreme Court has the authority to address those allegations through a special tribunal,” Karzai said in defending the panel of judges set up in late December. Karzai’s decision, under which the new parliament will convene for the first time on Wednesday, was welcomed with modest praise by lawmakers. “We are fine with it. It is some solution,” said Mirwais Yasini, a lawmaker from eastern Nangarhar province. “I am very happy that the parliament is going to be open, and we will have much more power to work against that court then,” said Naheed Farid, a lawmaker from Herat who has been acting as a temporary secretary for the parliament.

The 249 parliamentarians elected in September were originally slated to take their seats Sunday. But Karzai announced last week that he was delaying the opening of the legislature by a month to allow deeper investigation into alleged electoral fraud by a constitutionally questionable tribunal. This prompted the lawmakers to threaten to start the session on their own, though they aborted this plan after striking the tentative deal with Karzai on Saturday. The agreement appeared precarious over the last two days as parliamentarians tried to lobby for the abolishment of the tribunal, but it was unlikely they would reject a decision that acceded to their primary demand — getting the legislative session open as soon as possible. “What is important is that the inauguration happens Wednesday,” said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker from Kabul.

The tribunal is so contentious because its authority is unclear. The head of the five-judge panel has argued that the tribunal has the power to order recounts or even nullify the election if it finds pervasive enough fraud. But Afghan electoral law gives the sole authority to change results to two bodies — an anti-fraud panel and the election commission — which have already certified results. There is no doubt that there was a large amount of cheating and misconduct in the September vote. The anti-fraud panel disqualified 19 winning candidates and threw out nearly a third of ballots in its investigations, while also recommending criminal investigations of a number of other candidates. But the decision to create an ad-hoc body to revisit the entire vote threatens to undermine both the established electoral process and the authority of the parliament.

Fifty-nine winning candidates are among those being investigated by the tribunal, so its rulings could fundamentally alter the makeup of parliament. And Karzai could potentially use the tribunal — packed with his appointees — to pressure parliamentarians not to stray from his desired platform. And so the parliament could be significantly weakened at a time when Afghanistan’s Western allies are struggling to strengthen the government so that they can start drawing down troops. But Farid, the lawmaker from Herat, said they can now at least fight the tribunal with the force of the legislature. “Right now we are not inside the parliament and we don’t have that much power. We are in a hotel,” Farid said. The elected parliamentarians have so far been negotiating and taking votes in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel — holding side meetings in smoky suites and passing time on lobby couches waiting for a ruling from the president. “After opening the parliament the first thing we will do is ask the Supreme Court what foundation they have for establishing such a court,” Farid said. Throughout the political debate, NATO and Afghan forces have continued to battle insurgents in what has been a particularly violent winter. On Monday, NATO said its forces killed two key local Taliban figures with airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan. One of the men acted as a shadow district administrative chief in Nangarhar province, while the other helped Taliban leaders get weapons and vehicles in Logar province, the coalition said. – Yahoo News