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Karzai inaugurates new parliament, reluctantly

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai grudgingly inaugurated the country’s new Parliament on Wednesday, bowing to international and domestic pressure to avert a Constitutional crisis.

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai grudgingly inaugurated the country’s new Parliament on Wednesday, bowing to international and domestic pressure to avert a Constitutional crisis. But while danger of an immediate combustion might have passed, the long-term prospects for fruitful cooperation between the executive and the legislative branches are pretty shaky, government insiders say.

An unsmiling Karzai delivered a long, rambling speech to kick off the new legislature, extolling the achievements of the young republic while alternately thanking the international community for its contributions and lashing out at it for such offenses as killing civilians, interfering in Afghanistan’s sovereignty, and chopping down trees.

He switched at regular intervals between Pashto and Dari, the country’s two official languages, but the oath of office was delivered only in Pashto.

Karzai appealed to the Taliban, and “all those who are fighting against Afghanistan” to lay down their arms — not forgetting to get a dig in against the international forces.

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“Because of you, whole villages are destroyed,” he said, addressing the insurgents. “You fire one bullet and the foreign troops bomb everything. If you don’t want foreigners to kill Afghans, then stop this war.”

He called on all Afghans to work for a better future, harking back to one of the most famous inauguration speeches of all time.

“U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy told his people that they should not ask just what America could do for them,” said Karzai, paraphrasing the rousing “Ask not what your country can do for you” line delivered by Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961.

The Afghan president continued: “So now ask yourself — what can you do for Afghanistan?”

The audience was a difficult one. Many of the lawmakers sat stone-faced as the president spoke, and the standing ovation at the end of the hour-long speech lasted less than a minute.

The restraint was a sign of the tension still reigning between the executive and the legislative branches, and of the still-brewing crisis over last September’s Parliamentary elections.

Karzai had threatened to postpone the opening of the Parliament until the end of February, giving more time for a Special Tribunal looking into election fraud to issue its rulings. At stake is the fate of dozens of newly inaugurated members of Parliament who could be indicted if the Tribunal finds them guilty of criminal wrongdoing durig the Parliamentary poll.

The elections were undoubtedly tainted by fraud — nearly one-quarter of the 5 million votes cast had to be thrown out, and 24 winning candidates disqualified. But according to Karzai, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

His Attorney General began issuing arrest warrants in November, including several for members of the independent electoral bodies that had certified the election results, and the Supreme Court was threatening to call for entirely new elections.

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It was a fitting second act to the 2009 presidential elections, which were also mired in allegations of fraud.

Nearly a third of all votes in the presidential poll were discounted. Karzai narrowly avoided a runoff when his main rival, opposition leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out, saying that he had no reason to believe a second round of voting would be any less corrupt than the first.

Now it is Karzai who is leading the charge against electoral malfeasance.

Many attribute the president’s newfound fondness for clean elections to the fact that the body returned by the September ballot is not exactly to his liking. Pashtuns, the country’s dominant ethnic group and his main power base, lost 26 seats in the new Parliament, and will be a distinct minority.

Still others see the Special Tribunal as an instrument of political pressure against Karzai’s enemies.

“No one wants to say it out loud, but it is starting to look like a witch hunt, “ said one Western legal advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Special Tribunal will continue its work, under an eleventh-hour compromise between Karzai and the legislators.

Those who had been certified as winners in the elections were holding round the clock meetings, threatening to open the legislature without the president if he insisted on waiting another month. The losers were also convening, threatening protests if the inauguration went ahead.

Daoud Sultanzoi, a prominent and outspoken former MP from Ghazni, warned of “very dangerous consequences” if the new Parliament were inaugurated as is.

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“The Constitution has been violated and people had been deprived of their voting rights,” he said. “This shows that the elections were not transparent.”

Meanwhile, the international community was conducting feverish negotiations with Karzai, trying desperately to preserve some semblance of an orderly transition of power.

This earned Western diplomats yet another reprimand from the Afghan executive. The president’s office issued a statement on Tuesday accusing the international community of fomenting the crisis for its own ends.

“Some foreign hands questioned our decisions and started instigation to create crises in our country,” the statement quoted Karzai as saying. “They kept provoking winning candidates …(to) inaugurate the Parliament without the president’s participation, and we will support you.”

Western officials were not happy with the president’s actions or his words. Privately, many express dismay and even anger at Karzai’s attitude.

“Karzai has gone completely round the bend,” said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But still he is gaming us. He knows we will never stand up to him. We just don’t know what to do.”

Karzai eventually backed down, but not before obtaining a signed agreement from the acting speaker of the Parliament, Mohammad Sarwar Usmani, as well as his deputy and the secretary, to honor the findings of the Special Tribunal.

The U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) welcomed the opening of the Parliament, in a determinedly upbeat statement issued Wednesday.

“The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan … welcomes the understanding reached in the recent exchanges between the Office of the President of Afghanistan and the Afghan parliament agreeing the inauguration of the National Assembly on 26 January,” read the statement. “It further commends the spirit of cooperation between the Presidential Office and the recently elected members of Parliament … This process has revealed that a healthy debate is underway amongst Afghanistan’s democratic institutions, an encouraging sign of a progressing democracy.”

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It remains to be seen whether the “healthy debate” will survive the first sessions of the new legislature. Some, including Afghan legal expert Abdul Satar Sadaat, expect the Parliament to use its power to try and void the establishment of the Special Tribunal, thereby plunging right into the murky waters of separation of powers.

“The very first decision these parliamentarians are going to take will be forbidding the establishment of special courts,” he said. “Their first act will be illegal.”

Karzai’s actions in trying to overturn the elections might have, in fact, had the contradictory effect of uniting a body that had seemed politically fractured, and ethnically at loggerheads.

“(The president) can certainly utilize — abuse, to be more precise about it — the special court mechanism to intimidate individual candidates who are not clearly aligned with political forces that oppose him publicly,” said Janan Mosazai, a political analyst and an unsuccessful candidate in September’s elections.

“The real test of this session is whether or not the individual new MPs will prove to have the intelligence, vision and capacity to strengthen the unity they seem to have achieved as a result of President Karzai’s antics in the past several weeks,” he continued. “A parliament that speaks more with one voice will be a healthy counterweight to a president who’s been acting as though the separation of power in the Afghan constitution is a joke or an inconvenient nuisance he can continue to willfully ignore.”