KABUL // Afghanistan's parliament opened in the capital yesterday after days of tense standoff between the country's president, Hamid Karzai, and US-backed Afghan politicians threatened to send the country into a political tailspin.
All 249 members of Afghanistan's new Wolesi Jirga, the National Assembly's lower house, attended the inaugural session amid tight security at the parliament building in central Kabul.
Mr Karzai, who ignited the crisis last week when he said he would delay the inauguration of parliament by one month, also attended the session and called for unity.
Winning members of parliament had promised to defy the president's orders to postpone the opening session, gaining support from US and UN officials in Kabul.
"You are representing the whole Afghanistan and not a particular clan," Mr Karzai said to the MPs. "Let us join hands, stand together and work for the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan."
The session seemed to assuage immediate fears of a political crisis in the capital, but observers say the squabble has left the Afghan political process mired in uncertainty.
While Mr Karzai attended the inauguration, he has yet to acknowledge the final results of last year's elections that brought the new members of parliament to power.
Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group and Mr Karzai's traditional power base, are under-represented in the parliament.
Analysts say it is likely to voice stronger opposition to the president.
It also remains unclear whether Mr Karzai's special elections tribunal, appointed in December to investigate allegations of elections fraud, some against current MPs, will continue its work.
Activists and parliamentarians claim it is unconstitutional, and they have accused Mr Karzai of trying to influence its work.
One western official in Kabul said: "Everything is still unclear at this point, but the fact that parliament has opened is a good sign. We know Karzai is trying to get some of his political allies into parliament and he still hasn't ruled that out. I don't think it will end here, but everyone is playing political games."
The country's new parliament was elected in a fraud-ridden poll on September 18.
Because Taliban insurgents, who are mainly Pashtun, threatened to carry out attacks on voters, many Pashtuns were intimidated into staying home on the day of the vote.
Afghanistan's Independent Elections Commission (IEC) eventually discarded 1.3 million ballots, or nearly a quarter of the total,- and disqualified 19 winning candidates before issuing final results on November 24.
More than 2,500 candidates ran for the 249 available seats, although 68 are reserved for women.
While the United States, United Nations and other international backers recognised the IEC's final tally, Mr Karzai refused to publicly acknowledge the results as legitimate.
Analysts say he is under tremendous pressure from Pashtun tribal leaders to ensure they maintain political power, and that creating the special tribunal was a nod to his Pashtun political base.
"Pashtuns are Karzai's biggest liability," one western analyst said. "Many Pashtuns didn't expect much from the election commission in terms of overturning results in areas where they were disenfranchised. They were actually looking to Karzai for guidance."
But when Mr Karzai sanctioned the tribunal and delayed parliament on January 20, politicians, many of them Tajik and Hazara, Afghanistan's other major ethnic groups, cried foul.
Western diplomats worked hard during the weekend to solve the crisis, reportedly pressuring Mr Karzai to cut short a trip to Russia in order to prevent political disaster.
Even Nato's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, entered the fray, telling reporters in Brussels on Monday that a stable political environment in Afghanistan is "a prerequisite for a successful transition," according to wire reports. "That is why I have stressed the need for a timely opening of parliament," he said.
Nato, which is training Afghan security forces to assume more power, plans to begin its security handover to the Afghan government as early as March.
In his speech to parliament yesterday, Mr Karzai lashed out at his western backers, saying the elections suffered from "foreign interference".
The western official said: "Nato wants parliament to be working so that we can check it off of our list of requirements for the handover. We can't hand over security if there's no government. It's as simple as that."