President Hamid Karzai swore in the country's new parliament Wednesday in a ceremony that marked the end of a drawn-out battle over whether the lawmakers would be able to start work despite ongoing investigations into electoral fraud.
It remained unclear whether a disputed tribunal looking into allegations of misconduct will be able to change the results of the September elections, but the 249 members of the lower house will now be able to start work immediately, rather than waiting until late February as Karzai had ordered last week.
Wednesday's ceremony opened with the national anthem and a recitation from the Quran. Karzai then delivered a speech to lawmakers, telling them he hoped they would be productive and reminding them that their election wins are still disputed by many.
"I wish success for all the lawmakers and I wish, according to our constitution, that all three pillars of our government fulfill their duties for a prosperous and stable Afghanistan," Karzai said.
"There are a lot of questions that we need to respond to about the parliamentary election," he added.
He then led the lawmakers in their oath, in which each placed a hand on a Quran while pledging to fulfill their duties.
Wednesday's swearing-in was seen as a victory for the lawmakers, who forced Karzai to back down from a plan to delay the opening session by one month to allow investigations into fraud by a specially created court to finish.
The legislators won the concession by threatening to start their work this past Sunday — the date originally scheduled for the session to open — without Karzai's endorsement.
The standoff between parliament and the president could have brought the government to a standstill in this already turbulent country where NATO and U.S. forces are fighting a stubborn Taliban resistance.
"Afghanistan, 10 years since the Taliban collapsed, is still suffering from fighting," Karzai said. "Thousands of people have been killed, including women, children, elders, soldiers."
He told the assembly that they should put self-interest behind them and cooperate for the good of the country.
Even with the session opening, there is still uncertainty surrounding the legislature.
Karzai's motives questionedKarzai is thought to be unhappy with the new parliament's make-up, which although not necessarily united, has yielded a more vocal and coherent opposition bloc to challenge him.
Critics agree with the president that lawmakers, many of whom obtained their position by means of fraud or intimidation, should be investigated, but question Karzai's motives behind the creation of the special court.
"Karzai's special tribunal has no legal basis and seems designed to pack parliament with his supporters rather than to fairly and properly assess the conduct of candidates," said Sam Zarifi, from rights group Amnesty International.
A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the special court was "key."
"I think we can expect to see the president using what he says are legal powers to try and remove some parliamentarians," the diplomat said "We are not over this. He will try to do something, if only to weaken legitimacy of parliament."
Losing candidates continue to press their case that they have been wronged. More than 100 of them met with Karzai at the presidential palace on Tuesday and accused him of acting illegally and caving to pressure from the West at the expense of the Afghan people. They have said parliament should not open until all investigations finish.
On Wednesday, a worker inside the palace said about 160 candidates had spent the night there, refusing to leave until their concerns were addressed. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not an official spokesman.
Karzai's office said in a statement that he explained to the losing candidates that his Western allies had put pressure on him to open the session but promised that the special tribunal he has backed to renew fraud investigations will fully investigate their charges of extensive fraud.
The Afghan leader equivocated about the role of the international community in his speech, saying that no outsider should be allowed to interfere with the business of the Afghan government, but saying he was thankful for the help of the international community and for the presence of NATO forces.
He repeated a pledge to take over responsibility for security nationwide by 2014.
"Our Afghan security forces are in good shape right now. We are going to do our best to strengthen the quantity and quality of those forces," he said. "That will give the international forces the opportunity to go back to their homes."
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the inaugural session of parliament was not important to the insurgents and that the political drama surrounding the opening was meant to confuse the Afghan people.
"This is part of this puppet government under the Americans," he said.
There is still no resolution about the powers of the disputed five-judge tribunal looking into the allegations of electoral fraud.
The judges on the tribunal say they have the authority to order recounts and even nullify the entire election if needed.
Afghan election officials and international advisers have condemned the tribunal's assertions, saying they overstep both the constitution and electoral law.
An official watchdog panel already investigated allegations of fraud — and threw out votes and disqualified candidates — before results were certified in late November. Afghan electoral law says that no other body can change the results.
The head of the disputed tribunal has said the body plans to hear cases against 59 winning candidates.
Any criminal convictions could also disrupt the legislature. The constitution does not give parliamentarians immunity from conviction for a crime, but does say the legislature has to give permission before any sitting parliamentarian can serve jail time.
The constitution does not address whether lawmakers convicted of a crime will be removed from the legislature.
Ordinary Afghans themselves were skeptical that a new parliament would make a difference to their lives.
"In this country, the leaders are chosen by force of money, guns and corruption," said Haji Gul, a shopkeeper in the town of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. "It's not necessary to form parliament."