Kabul, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai will meet with Afghan lawmakers Saturday in a last-ditch attempt to resolve their differences over a disputed election and avert a clash that could spiral into constitutional chaos.
A large number of those elected in last year's parliamentary elections have vowed to inaugurate the new parliament unilaterally on Sunday and start proceedings, in defiance of an order by Karzai issued this week to delay the opening by another month.
Karzai won't return from a two-day trip to Russia until Saturday, giving him just a few hours before a potentially violent confrontation between lawmakers who say they'll force their way into the parliament building and security forces loyal to Karzai.
A functioning parliament is an important plank of the West's attempts to improve governance in Afghanistan, to speed up the handover of responsibilities to Afghans and to allow the departure of U.S.-led international military forces from the country.
The United Nations, on behalf of the international community, weighed in on the side of parliament Friday, expressing its "deep concern and surprise" at Karzai's decision, announced Wednesday, to postpone the inauguration.
"UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), the European Union, the United States, Canada and other concerned members of the international community continue to support a reasonable, enduring and peaceful resolution to this issue . . . so that Parliament can convene as soon as possible," the U.N. said in a statement.
If no compromise is reached between Karzai and the lawmakers Saturday, it will leave the U.S. ambassador, U.N. representative and other diplomats with the difficult decision about whether to attend the rebel first session of the parliament.
"We have to find out what the president wants," said Khalid Pashtoon, who added that he's one of the lawmakers invited Saturday to the presidential palace for talks. "He has to clarify the legal grounds for postponement."
"The majority of the parliamentarians are extremely serious and will push the president. They might agree to a delay of a few days, a week maximum."
Kabir Marzban, a lawmaker from the northern province of Takhar, said that "a number of members of parliament wanted to solve this through dialogue and negotiation."
It's been four months since the vote for the 249 seats in parliament, and multiple investigations into allegations of fraud in the voting have held up the start of the new assembly.
Critics of Karzai accuse him of deliberately stalling the parliament in hopes of disqualifying some of the opposition members. He set up a controversial court to decide hundreds of complaints from losing candidates and postponed the start of parliament to give the court more time.
As many as 220 of the winning candidates oppose Karzai, though the president's supporters insist that the rebels don't have the majority.
Arain Yeon, a Karzai-supporting lawmaker elected from the eastern province of Nangarhar, claimed that no more than 70 members of parliament supported the unilateral opening, and "they are all Abdullah supporters," referring to Karzai's 2009 presidential rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
"It is against the law to unilaterally inaugurate parliament. The president has to do it," said Yeon.
A Western diplomat in Kabul, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the international community questioned the legality of the court examining the allegations of election-rigging and thinks that any disputes should be decided on a case-by-case basis, rather than holding up the entire parliament.
"No-one has an absolute read-out on what will happen (over the weekend)," the diplomat said. "We still hope that Afghan institutions can find a way to work through this."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)