KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered a one month delay to the inauguration of parliament after a special election court asked for more time to look into fraud allegations, his office said on Wednesday.
Karzai promised there would be no delay beyond the new February 22 target for forming the assembly, but by then Afghanistan will have been without a parliament for more than five months.
The fraud-riddled poll and months of drawn-out political infighting over the results have raised questions about the credibility of Karzai and his government as rulers, and as partners for foreign nations backing him with troops and cash.
Karzai himself set up the special tribunal that put the breaks on parliament, issuing a presidential decree after protests by losing candidates angry at corruption and winners frustrated that they still had not taken their seats.
“To pay tribute to the special poll court, the Presidential Palace delays the inauguration,” his office said in a statement.
“It is worth mentioning that the parliament will be inaugurated ... without any further delays,” it added.
A top Afghan opposition leader condemned the court as illegal, and said another month’s delay in forming an assembly would undermine the country’s fragile democracy.
“This court is in direct violation of the constitution of Afghanistan,” said Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist who was Karzai’s main rival in the last presidential elections.
“This seems like an effort to undermine the role of parliament, and damage it,” he said of the delay.
After months without a parliament, there are fears that further waiting will fuel political unrest and instability.
And winning members of parliament, who have already started an orientation week, may not accept a delay quietly.
“We are representatives of our nation, and we are going to open the parliament on Sunday as scheduled,” said Mirwais Yasini, a successful candidate from eastern Nangarhar province.
Karzai had been due to inaugurate parliament on January 23 but Sadiqullah Haqiq, head of the tribunal, called for at least an extra month to look into more than 300 complaints.
Haqiq said his team had not ruled out calling regional recounts and might also travel to some of the contested areas.
“We may need to recount the vote of some provinces, we may need to refer to the ballot boxes, and we may need to travel to the provinces and districts,” he told a gathering of journalists, who were not allowed to ask questions.
“We have full authority to do this in the whole country.”
The poll was marred by widespread fraud, with problems including fake voter cards, multiple voting and intimidation, and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) threw out nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast in the September 18 poll.
After further checks by an election watchdog, the IEC announced what were supposed to be final results by December 1., but the attorney general continued investigating complaints and called for the results to be annulled.
The special court was set up in December, when officials said it would investigate objections rapidly to clear the way for parliament to be formed by late January.
Some losing candidates -- who have organized weeks of protests against the final results -- came to the news conference, and after Haqiq made his call for a delay and further checks, many jumped up to clap and shout “God is Greatest.”
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 the previous assembly. Around 90 have gathered into a loose coalition led by Abdullah.
Until recently, parliament had largely acted as a rubber stamp for Karzai, but it flexed its political muscle earlier this year when it rejected several of his cabinet nominees.