KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai delayed parliament's opening session by one month Wednesday so that a controversial tribunal he has backed can continue its investigation into election fraud.
The move throws further uncertainty on the willingness of Karzai's government to follow its own laws. The tribunal, appointed by Karzai's Supreme Court, is considered unconstitutional by both the international community and the electoral bodies who organized and oversaw the vote.
It is generally believed that Karzai is unhappy with the new parliament given his continued backing of investigations, and thinks fraud held down voter turnout among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns.
Many had hoped that September's legislative elections would demonstrate Karzai's commitment to fight cronyism and corruption a year after an international outcry over a fraud-marred presidential vote that resulted in his own re-election.
Instead, the parliamentary ballot was tainted by familiar allegations of fraud and voter intimidation, and debates since then over who gets to decide the final results have cast even more doubt on the process.
Karzai's Western allies have pointed to corruption as a major problem in the fight against the Taliban, saying it undermines the Afghan people's support for their government and risks wasting the billions of dollars in foreign money pouring in to prop up the country.
Although the Afghan parliament is largely seen as weak in comparison with Karzai's administration, the legislature has also successfully blocked many of the president's Cabinet appointments and been the primary dissenting voice to the powerful executive.
The parliament had been set to start work Sunday after an earlier investigation by an anti-fraud watchdog into the charges of irregularities. That group discarded 1.3 million ballots — nearly a quarter of the total — and disqualified 19 winning candidates before final results were issued on Nov. 24.
But Afghanistan's attorney general concluded that investigation had not been thorough enough and launched a new round of inquiries that led to the Supreme Court's creating the special tribunal in late December.
It is unclear if the tribunal has the power to alter the result of any races. Afghan electoral law names the fraud investigation panel as the ultimate arbiter of such issues and the Independent Election Commission as the body to declare final results.
The head of the five-judge tribunal, Sadiqullah Haqiq, told reporters that the court has the power to overturn results and even to invalidate the entire election. To make such decisions, he said, more time is needed.
He said the tribunal needs to investigate more than 300 cases. "You cannot find any province in which there was not fraud," he added.
The decision on when to open the parliamentary session rests with the president and Karzai's office said in a statement that it would grant the extra one month, but no more.
"There will be no other delay for the start of the parliamentary session," the statement said, adding that the parliament will now convene on Feb. 23. Karzai also instructed all electoral bodies to cooperate with the court's investigation.
Haqiq had chastised election officials for being uncooperative. He quoted a two-sentence letter the commission sent in response to a request for information: "No other institution has the authority to make any decision about the final results of the election. If you have any questions you should go to our website and study the information posted there."
Officials with the Independent Election Commission could not be reached for comment.
Haqiq said a refusal by commission officials to cooperate could throw the entire election into doubt.
"If there is no cooperation with the special court by the IEC in the capital and in the provincial offices, if we cannot make a decision in this one month, then the nation will think about the illegitimacy and legitimacy of the election and the court will make a decision about that," he said. His speech was greeted with applause by more than 100 losing candidates — some in full suits, some in traditional light tunics and turbans.
Winning candidates say Karzai has promised them he will defend the issued results. But there are also hundreds of losing candidates in the election, in which 2,500 contenders ran for 249 seats. Many of the losers say Karzai told them he believes they were wronged and that he will do everything to support further investigations.
Daoud Sultanzoi, a former parliamentarian from eastern Ghazni province where closed polling stations and fraud meant that very few votes were counted for the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, said he hoped the further investigation would renew Afghans' faith in their government.
"When an election is derailed by the election commissions disregarding the law, those results are not legal results," Sultanzoi said. "We don't have a legal, legitimate parliament here."
A group of more than 220 winning parliamentarians, meanwhile, gathered in an auditorium of the parliament to protest the delay.
"President Karzai gave us a date. ... The postponement is illegal. President Karzai should stay true to his promise," said Gul Pacha Majidi, a winning candidate from Paktia province.
The election has proved a nagging problem for Karzai's government as it tries to focus with its NATO allies on fighting the Taliban in their southern strongholds. As politicians have argued over seats, violence has surged across the country.
On Wednesday, a roadside bombing killed 13 civilians in eastern Paktika province, while four border policemen were killed in a roadside bomb blast in southern Zabul province.
Violence on election day has made officials reluctant to call for repeat votes even in provinces where the results seem skewed disproportionately toward one ethnic group.
Karzai's former presidential opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, argued that the president — who has often bulldozed laws through the legislature by issuing decrees during parliamentary recesses — benefits from keeping parliament in limbo as long as possible.
"Karzai will be happier if there is no parliament," Abdullah said.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul.