KABUL, Afghanistan — Parliament's refusal to approve more than two-thirds of the proposed Afghan cabinet shows the extent to which President Hamid Karzai's recent fraud-tainted election victory had left him severely weakened, lawmakers of all political stripes said Sunday.
National assembly members said they were receiving nonstop phone calls of congratulations for their decision Saturday to reject 17 out of 24 ministers Karzai had proposed.
"I had two Afghan expatriates call and ask what could they do to strengthen the parliament," said Mirwais Yasini, the first deputy speaker, who himself had run against Karzai in August's disputed elections. "They're saying: 'Good for you.'"
Far from acknowledging he was in a political crisis, Karzai portrayed his defeat as a triumph of democracy.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
"The beauty of democracy is that the rejection ... is not good for the president but shows the democracy in this country," his spokesman, Waheed Omer, told a news conference Sunday.
Omer stressed that parliament was an institution that like the judiciary was independent of the executive branch. Assembly members agreed that the body — often criticized for the presence of former warlords, drug lords and suspected war criminals and for giving the entire membership immunity from prosecution — had redeemed itself and established its bona fides.
"I'm saying, yes, we are independent," said Khaled Pashtun, a member of parliament from Kandahar, the center of the Taliban insurgency against the Karzai government. "This decision gave the people really big hope. At least we are giving some legitimacy" to the work of the parliament, he told McClatchy.
But he disagreed with Omer's assertion that the rejections came as a surprise. Pashtun said he was among a small group of assembly members Karzai briefed the day before he announced the government roster, and who took exception to his plan to give at least 13 cabinet positions to ethnic bloc leaders who'd backed him in the presidential race.
When challenged, Karzai indicated he had insufficient political clout to block his ethnic allies, including Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek leader accused of organizing the massacre of hundreds of Taliban in 2001 and burying them in mass graves. Dostum had demanded three cabinet posts for his proteges.
Karzai made clear he'd have no problem if parliament rejected them.
"I'd appreciate if you'd approve (them)," Pashtun quoted Karzai as saying. "If not, it would make my job easier."
In Pashtun's judgment, "he gave us a pass" to reject at least 13 of the nominees. But he said parliament went on to toss out four additional nominees who in fact were qualified for the jobs on the basis of merit, educational background or experience.
Karzai's strength could soon be put to another test. On Saturday, his appointed Independent Elections Commission announced it would stage parliamentary elections in May.
According to Pashtun, who keeps his lines open to Karzai, this course of action is out of the question. The election commission itself had "lost all credibility" by overlooking evidence of fraud in the 2009 presidential race, and the lack of security would make it impossible to hold a vote in large swaths of southern, eastern and western Afghanistan, he said.
In addition, he said, hundreds of thousands of registration cards had been illegally handed out to a small number of individuals, who used them to back Karzai last August. "I know of one person who has 10,000 cards, and someone who has 18,000 and another who has 15,000," he said. Staging a parliamentary election under these circumstances "will be a chaotic situation."
Yasini, an outspoken Karzai critic, told McClatchy that Karzai's own allies are now accusing him openly of vote rigging and fraud in provincial elections held at the same time as the presidential poll in August. He said he doubted the international community would go along with parliamentary elections in May.
(Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington