When he stood to speak, the lawmakers listened politely, but did not budge. They wanted him to inaugurate the Parliament the very next day. Not even the usually loyal Pashtuns at the gathering, who are from the president’s own ethnic group, agreed with his decision, announced days earlier, to delay the body’s opening for a month.
By the day’s end, Mr. Karzai had backed down, agreeing to inaugurate the newly elected lawmakers, which finally took place Wednesday after months of heated wrangling over the fairness of last fall’s elections.
The turnabout and the string of political miscalculations that led to it have left Mr. Karzai a diminished and more isolated leader, members of Parliament, Western diplomats and analysts say. At the very least, they say, the outcome seems certain to signal the beginning of a potentially more precarious period in Mr. Karzai’s relations with Afghanistan’s power brokers.
He has angered losing parliamentary candidates whom he encouraged to pursue claims of fraud and whom he has now effectively deserted. He has angered those who won by appearing to be willing to delay and possibly even annul their election. And he again alienated his Western backers, who already see him as an unpredictable and difficult partner.
“Nobody is left for President Karzai, nobody is left supporting him,” said Mir Wali, a candidate from Helmand Province who was disqualified at the last minute and is a prominent figure in the province. “And, I doubt the new Parliament will support him.”
Mr. Wali’s pronouncement may be too categorical, but it corroborates the view of many that Mr. Karzai has become increasingly isolated over the past 16 months since the 2009 presidential election in which he was forced into a runoff by Western diplomats as well as his Afghan supporters.
Once seen as a superb tactician, who could almost always find a way to juggle competing interests and slip through each crisis, he increasingly turns to a small group of advisers and on several occasions has begun to miscalculate.
He was convinced, along with Westerners and his Afghan opponents, that his support of candidates during the elections would propel a number of his backers into Parliament. The voters did not agree, and his supporters — among them more than a score of friendly, mostly Pashtun candidates — lost their seats or were disqualified.
There are 16 fewer Pashtuns in this Parliament than the last and 15 more Hazaras, according to an analysis by Western officials in Kabul. The result is a Parliament that is less reliably supportive of the president.
His efforts to make changes in the ranks of the winners during the appeals process failed. His attempt to use the attorney general’s office and a special court to review cases of allegations of fraud appears likely to yield little as well. Although the court is still working, once the lawmakers are sworn in, it is widely thought that it will be hard to unseat more than two or three.
Mr. Karzai’s miscalculation may be the fault of advisers, said several diplomats and analysts who also said he remained an extremely canny politician.
For instance, he is being told by those closest to him that the Northern Alliance, the old anti-Taliban coalition, has become too strong and that this threatens his position. However, if he faces off with them he may be in jeopardy because they have gained many important posts, and they are mostly not from his Pashtun base.
“He’s really in a bind,” said Martine van Bijlert, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network and a longtime observer of Afghan politics.
Afghan power brokers and diplomats both blame the narrowness of his consultations. “Karzai started having more people in opposition when he started to make decisions on his own,” said Qazi Nasir Ahmad, a member of Parliament from Herat Province, who was a longtime leader in the fight against the Russians. “He has not consulted very many people when making these election decisions.”
A Western diplomat in Kabul who has watched the election process agreed. “It used to be that before making any move, the president would consult himself to death,” the diplomat said. “Now he’s relying increasingly on a smaller group of advisers and it might be different if they represented more different groups, but they don’t.”
What that means for his support among Afghans is hard to say. “One thing in the mind of many Afghans is that the president is like a king, and that ultimately he can decide what happens,” Ms. van Bijlert said. “So if he doesn’t have the last say — and he clearly didn’t in this case — it signals something quite profound about his position.”
Whether Parliament’s new strength and Mr. Karzai’s isolation hurt or help the West or Afghanistan’s nascent democracy is a matter of debate, but a weakened Mr. Karzai may be one who increasingly uses organs of the state in ways that seem autocratic at best.
In the past year, for instance, he has started to allow the attorney general’s office to discredit or silence opponents by threats of investigations and indictments.
And in his disagreements with the West in the past five months, the president has used the threat of forcing the immediate expulsion of private security companies as a way to signal his displeasure. He raised the issue once again in his speech to the new Parliament on Wednesday.
In the election debate, there is little doubt that it was the intervention of Western and international institutions, led by the United Nations, that forced Mr. Karzai and Parliament to work out a deal. Mr. Karzai agreed to a speedy inauguration at least in part because the West considerably strengthened Parliament’s hand by signaling that diplomats would attend the lawmakers’ opening session, regardless of whether the president attended.
The move was audacious for a diplomatic corps that in the past year has gone out of its way to be respectful of Mr. Karzai — at least in public. Mr. Karzai’s remarks before Parliament on Wednesday seemed to signal some resentment over the shift.
“We faced serious problems in holding these elections, safeguarding peoples’ votes and preventing foreign intervention,” Mr. Karzai said.
Several diplomats said that their intervention on behalf of the Parliament was not necessarily the best outcome because now the Parliament was likely to look to them to strong-arm Mr. Karzai.
Not least, the West’s ready backing of Parliament over the president has left many in the presidential palace feeling abandoned, said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Mr. Karzai’s national security adviser.
“The feeling in the palace,” Mr. Spanta said, “is that the Europeans and United Nations, less the United States, encouraged the Parliament by telling them that even if they did not have a consensus with the president, even without one, they can go and sit and they will have the support of the internationals.”
“Let me ask you,” he added, “is it the case in India that the embassies of other countries interfere so massively in elections?”