Afghanistan's president issued a decree Wednesday stating that the country's courts do not have the power to alter election results, appearing to bow to pressure to resolve an impasse over the parliament's legitimacy that threatened to create a constitutional crisis.
The Afghan parliament has been in limbo after a special court in June called for the removal of 62 sitting lawmakers, saying they won their seats through fraud. The dispute hamstrung the country's already tumultuous political system, with the courts, the president and legislature all claiming the right to make the final ruling about last year's messy elections.
Afghanistan's September 2010 ballot was plagued by irregularities and voter intimidation. Fraud monitors discarded 1.3 million ballots _ nearly a quarter of the total _ for fraud, and disqualified 19 winning candidates for cheating.
In his decree, President Hamid Karzai said that the Independent Election Commission _ which organized the vote _ holds the final authority on deciding vote counts and results. Presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi said the commission will evaluate the court's findings and it will decide if any candidates should be removed.
"Based on the national interest of the country, Karzai has said that all those documents and evidence will be passed to the IEC. He gave the IEC authority to make a final decision," Herawi said.
Many international observers have claimed that Karzai was using the court to pack the legislature with his supporters, and the country's Western allies have argued that the court's call for the lawmakers' removal was unconstitutional. Under Afghan law, only the IEC and a vote-fraud monitoring body are empowered to change the results.
The British government welcomed the declaration in a statement. Ambassador William Patey said he looked forward to the conclusion of the IEC deliberations.
But while Karzai appears to have given in to the wishes of the international community and the election commission, the decree's wording could leave room for it being interpreted as the president issuing an order to the election commission, analysts said. Karzai is often seen by many Afghanis as aloof and out of touch with the country's challenges, more keen to dictate policy than steer a nation struggling to rebuild after a decade-long war.
The decree states: "The legal findings of the appeals court should be finalized as soon as possible by the election commission."
Herawi said this meant that the commission should make the final decision, not that it was being ordered by Karzai to implement the court's findings.
Analysts said it was likely that Karzai was hoping for a compromise in which some contested candidates would be removed, but without it appearing it was done so by a special court which he ordered set up.
"I think a compromise has already happened between the palace and the IEC," said Gran Hewad, who follows election issues with the Afghan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank. He said that he would expect somewhere between five and 17 candidates will be removed.
The chief electoral officer for the commission said this was the decision for which they had been hoping.
"This is mainly a decree to finalize, or put an end, to this issue," Abdullah Ahmadzai said. He said that the commission hopes to finish making rulings within the next week.
He declined to make any predictions about how many candidates would be removed until the commission finishes its assessment.
The election commission will be evaluating decisions made by a fraud-monitoring watchdog that has already finished its term. Ahmadzai said it was his understanding that the IEC has the authority to examine these decisions since it is the only electoral body currently active. According to the decree, the special court work has been completed.
The debate over the final election results started when the attorney general's office launched a separate investigation into allegations of ballot manipulation _ a move that eventually led to the establishment of the special tribunal.
The 249-member legislature was inaugurated in January only after a standoff with Karzai, who had threatened to delay convening parliament until the court cases were concluded.