- Associated Press - Sunday, January 23, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s president resisted demands from winning parliamentary candidates Sunday to dissolve a tribunal investigating alleged election fraud, potentially undercutting a deal in which he agreed to inaugurate the legislature this week.

President Hamid Karzai’s repeated refusals to accept the results of September’s parliamentary elections could undermine the new legislature’s authority and the electoral process even as Western allies design their military exit strategy around the idea of a stronger government.

Though the balloting was mired in fraud, the standoff has grown far beyond a question of ballot stuffing into a power struggle between the president and the elected parliamentarians. Both sides say the constitution and laws are on their side.

Sunday was the day parliament was originally scheduled to start work, but Mr. Karzai scuppered this deadline last week by announcing a one-month delay so the special tribunal could continue investigations. Lawmakers threatened to convene without Mr. Karzai’s approval and appeared to win a victory Saturday with a deal to inaugurate the assembly Wednesday — only three days late — as long as investigations could continue.

However, the compromise appeared at risk of unraveling Sunday over the question of the tribunal, which Afghan election officials and international advisers say is unconstitutional. The parliamentarians sent a letter to the president’s office saying they would not accept rulings from the special tribunal, only from the regular courts, according to Mirwais Yasini, a lawmaker from Nangarhar province who was re-elected.

Mr. Karzai refused, and another day of intense talks ensued. Parliamentarians were still in meetings late Sunday night, and Mr. Yasini said they were very close to a deal that would allow the tribunal with some sort of extra oversight.

The president’s office could not be reached for comment.

About 200 people gathered outside a mosque in Kabul on Sunday to demonstrate against the new parliament and press Mr. Karzai not to inaugurate it.

“This is an illegal parliament! This parliament should not be inaugurated!” said losing candidate Najibullah Mujahid of Kabul province. His supporters said thousands of votes cast for Mr. Mujahid had never appeared in the tally.

This has all happened despite an electoral process that was overhauled and reformed after 2009’s fraud-marred presidential vote. The official election fraud monitoring panel waded through thousands of charges of misconduct, voter intimidation and outright ballot stuffing, eventually discarding nearly a third of the ballots and disqualifying 19 winning candidates. The election commission calculated in these rulings before announcing official results on Nov. 24.

But the attorney general — a Karzai appointee — then opened a separate investigation, claiming that the first probe had not exposed the extent of the cheating. This led to the formation of the tribunal, whose judges claim it has the right to overturn results and even nullify the entire election if called for.

“The government bodies are largely splitting along the lines of who they want to win, or which outcome they want, and making their case based on that,” said Martine van Bijlert, director of the Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.

There are 59 winning candidates among the cases the court is investigating, according to Sadiqullah Haqiq, the head of the five-judge tribunal. That means the judges’ decisions could significantly alter the makeup of parliament.

Even if the sticking point is resolved, investigations still could wreak havoc on the parliament as it begins work this week. Whichever court takes on the investigations, a conviction of any candidate for fraud could provide a basis for revoking his seat. The Afghan constitution says no one who has been convicted of a crime can run for seat in the legislature.

While Mr. Karzai regularly has steamrolled over the parliament by issuing orders by decree, the body is still the main check on the president’s power and an important dissenting voice. The Supreme Court is nominated by Mr. Karzai and generally seen as beholden to him.

Mr. Karzai is largely considered unhappy with the parliamentary results, as shown by his continued support for the second round of investigations. His ethnic group, the Pashtuns, lost seats in the election. He has said, however, that his concern stems from a belief that fraud has gone unpunished while his political opponents have argued that he is trying to weaken the institution overall so that he has fewer limits on his power.

Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.

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