Opposition lawmakers in Afghanistan are crying foul about President Hamid Karzai's order to delay the inauguration of a new parliament by another month.
Karzai issued his delay order on January 19 after a special election tribunal that he set up asked for more time to investigate allegations of widespread fraud during September's election.
The Afghan president insisted that the long-awaited inauguration of the new parliament -- originally scheduled for January 23 -- will take place on February 22 "without further delay."
But Karzai's opponents charge that he is trying to strengthen his support in the new parliament by setting up the special tribunal to look into some 400 allegations of election fraud.
More than 200 candidates who were declared as winners in the September vote have condemned the tribunal as unconstitutional. They already have chosen a temporary speaker and have planned an unofficial opening for the original inauguration date -- setting up a possible confrontation with Karzai's administration in the days ahead.No Surprise
Chief among the critics is Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik who was foreign minister in Karzai's transitional administration before becoming one of Karzai's most prominent political opponents.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Without further delay."
"It didn't come as a surprise when President Karzai agreed with [the special tribunal's request for] delaying the inauguration because that was his intention," Abdullah says. "Nullification of the electoral process -- elections -- was his aim right from the beginning."
Sadiqullah Haqiq heads the five-judge tribunal that was appointed by a December 27 decree from Karzai to investigate the fraud-riddled vote.
Haqiq says his team had not ruled out calling for regional recounts and that the panel also may travel to some of the contested areas. Haqiq also said delaying the inauguration of the new parliament will spare authorities the contentious task of disqualifying candidates for fraud after they already have taken a parliamentary seat.
"In order to have clarity and accuracy, in order to implement justice in the country and to respect the members of parliament who are winners and those who did not win," Haqiq says it is necessary to ask Karzai to postpone the inauguration of the parliament.
But Abdullah and lawmakers angered by the delay are challenging the legality of Karzai's order to set up Haqiq's special tribunal in the first place.'In Any Way He Can'
Jean MacKenzie, a Kabul-based analyst and a correspondent for the online GlobalPost, explains that the complaints stem from the language of the Afghan Constitution and the country's election laws.
"[Karzai] has convened a special court or tribunal to look into election fraud and the legal status of that court is unclear," MacKenzie says. "There is no provision in the constitution or in the election law for anybody other than the Independent Election Commission or the Electoral Complaints Commission to adjudicate any problems with the elections.
Tribunal chief Sadiqullah Haqiq: "In order to have clarity and accuracy."
"So the common perception is that Karzai is unhappy with the [composition of the] parliament that was returned by these elections and is trying, in any way that he can, to get a more cooperative body in place."
Most major complaints being investigated by Karzai's special tribunal were made by Pashtun candidates who lost their seats as a result of the official election results.
In Ghazni Province, for example, all 11 winning candidates are from the ethnic Hazara minority. Pashtun candidates in Ghazni -- with their support base in areas controlled by Taliban fighters who threatened to kill any one who voted -- failed to secure a single seat.
Daud Sultanzaoy, one of the losing Pashtun candidates in Ghazni, has welcomed the month-long delay, saying he is now optimistic that a "representative" parliament would emerge.Blockade Linked
Indeed, MacKenzie points out that Pashtuns -- the largest ethnicity in Afghanistan -- will be underrepresented in the new parliament if the official results are allowed to stand as they are.
"Karzai's major power base is among the Pashtuns," MacKenzie says. "The Pashtuns lost -- depending on how you count -- either 24 or 26 seats. In the new parliament, their current representation is 92 out of 249 seats in parliament. They have been replaced by people with ties to armed groups with rather unsavory connections and who are highly critical of the government.
"So the common perception is that Karzai is really unwilling to work with the parliament that has been returned by the September elections, and fears that there will be much more confrontation with the legislature and much more pressure on him."
Some commentators in Kabul have charged that Iran's blockade of fuel trucks bound for Afghanistan is linked to the disputes in Afghanistan over the election results.Pressure From Iran
Razaq Mamoon, the director of the Bust-e Bastan news agency in Kabul and an outspoken critic of Iran, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on January 18 that Tehran is trying to pressure Kabul to allow pro-Iranian Afghan lawmakers to take parliamentary seats.
Just hours after he raised the allegation, Mamoon was sprayed in the face with acid
by a masked man in Kabul -- an attack he blames on Iran's intelligence service.
"I believe the Iranians have taken a clear position to put pressure on Afghanistan," Mamoon said. "The first issue is connected to Afghanistan's new parliament. There are reports that the international community is not satisfied with the composition of the new parliament and there are also feelings that Iran has the upper hand in the parliament [after] quite clear fraud took place [in the election]."
But others have raised doubts about any direct link between Iran's blockade and the special tribunal in Kabul. They note that Iran's blockade began in early December while Karzai's decree on creating the tribunal was not issued until December 27.
For its part, the international community has remained cautious about disputes over the election results -- including the U.S. Embassy, UN officials, and international election observers. None has come out and openly criticized Karzai for his decision to create the special tribunal or to delay the inauguration of the parliament.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report