A bitter standoff between Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan's parliament threatened to deepen as lawmakers signalled they would reject the President's latest list of cabinet picks.
Two weeks after striking down more than two-thirds of Mr. Karzai's original nominees, a second rebuff would prolong the country's current period of political drift and further erode Mr. Karzai's authority by leaving key ministries vacant.
Mr. Karzai's cabinet is viewed as a first, crucial test of his credibility in the wake of August's fraud-filled election that returned him to power. However, his inability to muster support from within his own government to fill its chief posts underscores his weakness at a time when Afghans and their Western supporters are seeking political stability amidst a military surge.
Now the parliament, once considered little more than a rubber-stamping body, has become emboldened, analysts say. Lawmakers who once bowed to Mr. Karzai's authority are now stonewalling him.
"When the first list came it was very bad. When the second list came, it is even worse," said Malalai Ishaqzai, a female legislator from Kandahar.
"These people don't have any experience. They can't run ministries; they couldn't even run a small government office. The problem is [Mr. Karzai]didn't consult us," she said.
Other independent lawmakers echoed her feelings of anger and impatience toward the Afghan President, who is also under intense pressure from Western donors to root out corruption in his government.
Mr. Karzai is also racing to fill his cabinet ahead of an international conference on Afghanistan to be held in London later this month.
His supporters say the criticism from lawmakers is out of step, and coloured by the dynamics of upcoming parliamentary elections slated for May.
They acknowledge, however, that Mr. Karzai has struggled to balance Western demands for clean government against repaying political debts to the warlords who supported him during his presidential campaign.
"Karzai is in a no-win situation. It doesn't matter who he presents; it will get rejected. What we are seeing right now is a lot of posturing," one analyst said.
The parliament rejected 17 of the Mr. Karzai's first 24 nominations two weeks ago. On Saturday, a new list to fill the remaining posts was presented and will put to a vote in the coming week.
The new slate is stacked with well-educated technocrats, including three women. However, most are political unknowns, fuelling charges of inexperience and incompetence.
Several have been singled out, such as Zarar Moqbel, who has been nominated as Minister of Counter Narcotics and has been accused of past corruption.
Another controversial pick is Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, head of the breakaway Islamic Party of Afghanistan and onetime ally of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e Islami group is allied with the Taliban.
"I think this is a very weak cabinet, not worthy of the Afghan people," said Mohammad Naeem Farahi, an independent lawmaker from Farah province. "A lot of the names come from bad camps. Maybe five are good from the whole list, that is all."
Most analysts here believe five to 10 of the nominees will get approved, meaning Mr. Karzai would have return to the legislature with a third list of nominees.
Other observers, however, down played the stalemate because the key government ministries, such as Defence and Interior, have already been filled.
Martine van Bijlert, who heads the Afghan Analysts Network, suggested Mr. Karzai - aware of his compromised political clout - was acting deliberately and tentatively.
"It's an awkward situation, but Karzai didn't seem to be exactly wedded to his first list. I found it surprising he came up with the second list so quickly. … There is a bit of a sense that he is adrift. It's difficult to think of Karzai of having a really clear plan or strategy at this point," she said.
There is also speculation that the cabinet picks could prove an exercise in futility. Parliamentary elections, just a few months away, would force a cabinet reshuffle regardless.
"All of this could prove to be ultimately irrelevant," Ms. van Bijlert said.