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Afghan parliament sworn in despite Karzai's opposition

Under U.S. pressure, Karzai inaugurates parliament. Critics say he tried to delay the opening in hope of altering the outcome of the September vote, widely seen as flawed.

January 27, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai, acting under heavy Western pressure, inaugurated Afghanistan's new parliament Wednesday but made plain his pique over being foiled in his efforts to delay the start of the session.

Addressing lawmakers after administering the oath of office, Karzai urged them to work together for the good of the country. But he revived the contentious tone of the elections by taking a swipe at his Western patrons, who had strongly urged that the new session of parliament begin as scheduled.

"During the election process, we faced serious problems in safeguarding people's votes, in preventing fraud and from the interference of foreigners," the Afghan leader said.

The swearing-in took place more than four months after fraud-riddled balloting for the lower house of the legislature, with no resolution in sight to conflicting claims concerning the elections' validity. Karzai set up a special court to resolve dozens of disputed races, but that move has been widely criticized as unconstitutional.

The Afghan leader last week tried to put off the inauguration for another month, but lawmakers rebelled and threatened to open the session themselves, even though the country's president is legally obligated to preside over the swearing-in.

Critics said Karzai wanted to delay the opening session because he hoped — and may still hope — to alter the outcome of the Sept. 18 vote, in which some incumbent lawmakers considered as his allies lost their seats. Now that the parliament has been sworn in, it is unclear whether any lawmakers implicated in vote fraud by the tribunal could be removed.

The parliamentary elections were supposed to have been a centerpiece of Western efforts to help bring about better governance in Afghanistan, which is seen as a bulwark against the insurgency. But like the presidential election a year earlier, they triggered a wave of bitterness and cynicism among Afghans about cronyism and corruption in the government.

Karzai has sought to direct some of that public anger toward the West, contending — as he did after the presidential election — that foreigners had meddled improperly in domestic matters. The Afghan leader's relations with the Obama administration and other Western governments have been tense and prickly since the August 2009 presidential balloting, in which about one-third of the votes cast for Karzai were thrown out by a United Nations-backed oversight commission.

Although the parliamentary elections were universally acknowledged to have been deeply flawed, Western diplomats and the NATO force praised election officials for managing to carry off the balloting despite violence and intimidation and urged that the new parliament swiftly begin legislative business. The parliament is considered an important check on Karzai's power.

The inauguration defused for the moment the president's standoff with lawmakers. But rulings by the special election tribunal, the timing of which are uncertain, could once again throw the political scene into turmoil. Many of the new lawmakers had tried unsuccessfully to get the president to dissolve the tribunal, which some saw as a tool Karzai might use to challenge opponents. The legality of the panel has also been questioned by constitutional experts.

In his speech, Karzai referred to the suffering caused by the nearly decade-long war, which began with the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 that toppled the Taliban government. "Thousands of people have been killed: women, children, our elders, soldiers," he said.

He was upbeat, however, about prospects that Afghan security forces will be able to take the lead in safeguarding the country by 2014, which could pave the way for the withdrawal of large numbers of foreign troops. The NATO force now numbers about 150,000, two-thirds of them Americans.

The Taliban, in a statement issued shortly after the swearing-in, mocked the event, calling the parliament part of a "puppet regime" and the inauguration a "drama meant to deceive people."

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