Karzai rows back to end crisis over parliament
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday abandoned his decision to delay the inauguration of parliament by a month, lawmakers said, bowing to heavy domestic and international pressure to end days of political turmoil.
Karzai struck a last-minute deal with representatives to open the session on Wednesday, just three days after the originally planned January 23 ceremony.
He also suggested he could abolish a special election court which sparked the crisis.
The reverse is a political climbdown that will please both Karzai's foreign partners and Afghan opposition politicians who worried the president was over-reaching his powers.
There were also fears that further delays would fuel unrest and instability at a time when violence is at its worst since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government by U.S-backed forces.
The crisis began when Karzai earlier this week backed a request from the poll tribunal -- which he had set up -- to allow another month to probe fraud claims from the September 18 vote.
Lawmakers furious that they still had not met four months after the election, and nearly two months after final results were announced, denounced the tribunal and the delay as illegal.
They threatened to meet at parliament on Sunday regardless of whether Karzai showed up, and said security forces had promised not to block them from the building, suggesting Karzai did not have the backing of his cabinet.
The nations that support Karzai with cash and troops were also unhappy. The United Nations, United States, European Union and Canada issued a joint statement expressing "deep concern."
Losing candidates who supported the delay added the specter of street clashes, when they pledged to gather hundreds of protesters near parliament and bar the winners from entering.
Marathon talks to stave off the looming meltdown in the Afghan political system ended late on Saturday night.
"We have agreed on Karzai's request to open parliament on Wednesday and refrain from going to parliament tomorrow," said Sediq Ahmad Usmani, a representative from Parwan province, as he headed home close to midnight.
Karzai's spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
But after repeated delays to the inauguration, some lawmakers remain skeptical the president's word can be trusted. The group's closed-door debate on his proposals was at times so heated that the shouting that could be heard from outside.
"The majority of us may agree on what has been proposed by the president, but there is no guarantee he won't back away," said Sharifullah Kamawal, a member of parliament for Kabul.
COURT MAY GO
The lawmakers have drafted a three-point note which they will send to parliament, committing to a Wednesday opening but also rejecting the election tribunal and any other decision it makes.
"We have agreed that the special court is not valid for us, any decision it makes is not acceptable to us and we will strongly reject it," said the third point on the statement.
Lawmakers quoted Karzai as saying during the negotiations that he might be willing to set aside the election court that sparked the crisis.
"Karzai has agreed that criminal cases should be decided according to the laws and constitution. If the special court is illegal then it will automatically be abolished," said Mirwais Yasini, a representative for eastern Nangarhar province.
Karzai set up the tribunal by presidential decree after protests by losing candidates angry at corruption and winners frustrated that they still had not taken their seats.
But critics say it is designed to serve his political agenda rather than the interests of justice, and raises wider questions about his respect for rule of law.
Karzai is believed to be unhappy about the poll results, which have left the assembly with a larger, more vocal and coherent opposition bloc than in the last parliament.
"This court is in direct violation of the constitution of Afghanistan," said Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in presidential elections and now head of an opposition coalition.
"Establishing a special court gives the president a free hand in coming years to establish a special court on any issue, and that court can act in accordance with his wishes and demands."