PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 106th CONGRESS, 2nd SESSION
Washington, Thursday, July 27, 2000
House of Representatives
AZERBAIJAN'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Wednesday, July 26, 2000
AZERBAIJAN'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS HON. CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH of New Jersey
Mr. Speaker, today I introduce a resolution calling on the Government of Azerbaijan to
hold free and fair parliamentary elections this November. After a series of elections marred by irregularities, the
upcoming election will help define the country's political orientation and its international reputation. Is Azerbaijan
developing towards Western-style electoral democracy or mired in the Soviet pattern of controlled voting results? The
answer to that question is important for the United States, which has significant strategic and economic interests in
At age 77, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev is the most experienced politician in the former Soviet space. Since
returning to power in 1993, he has created a semi-authoritarian political system that features highly centralized, hands-on
presidential rule, with constant positive coverage in the state-run media. President Aliev controls all branches of
government and the state's instruments of coercion. His implicit bargain with Azerbaijan's citizens offers stability in return
for unquestioned predominance. While Azerbaijan's constitution enshrines separation of powers, neither the legislature,
judiciary, press nor opposition parties may challenge President Aliev's hold on power. Indeed, in an interview published
in last Sunday's New York Times, he openly said, `I will always be president here.'
Opposition parties function, publish newspapers and have some representation in parliament. But they have no access to
state media, which portray them negatively, and their opportunities to influence the political process--let alone actual
decision-making--are carefully restricted.
With respect to elections, Azerbaijan's record has been poor. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights (ODIHR) monitored the 1995 and 1998 parliamentary and presidential elections, and concluded that they
did not meet OSCE standards. Council of Europe observers harshly criticized the first round of the local elections in
December 1999, though they noted some improvements in the second round. These flawed elections have exacerbated
the deep distrust between the government and opposition parties.
On May 25, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, held hearings on the upcoming election, in which Azerbaijani
Government representatives and opposition leaders participated. At that time, the main bone of contention between them
was the composition of the Central Election Commission. During the hearing, a government spokesman announced that
Baku was prepared to let government and opposition members veto the other side's nominees for the Commission posts
set aside for independents, a major step forward. In fact, that assurance subsequently turned out to be not entirely
reliable when the hard bargaining began in Baku, with the mediation of the ODIHR. Nevertheless, the agreement
eventually reached did give opposition parties an opportunity to block decisions taken by the pro-presidential majority
and was acclaimed by ODIHR as a fair and necessary compromise.
Since then, unfortunately, the process has collapsed. Azerbaijan's parliament passed an election law on July 5 that did
not include amendments recommended by the ODIHR to bring the legislation into accord with OSCE standards. The
law excludes an opposition party registered in February 2000 from fielding a party list; other problematic aspects include
territorial and local election commissions which are effectively under government control, the restriction of voters' rights
to sign petitions nominating more than one candidate or party, and the right of domestic observers to monitor the
President Aliev claims that he proposed modifications to the election law but parliament refused to accept them. This
assertion, considering his hold on the legislature--where a loyal, pro-presidential party controls over 80 percent of the
seats--is simply not plausible. In any case, if he did not approve of the law, he could have vetoed it. Instead, he signed it.
On July 7, the ODIHR issued a press release `deploring' shortcomings in the election law. Opposition parties refused to
participate in the work of the Central Election Commission unless the law is changed. In response, parliament amended
the Central Election Commission law, depriving the opposition of the ability to block decisions. On July 20, 12 political
parties, among them the leading opposition parties, warned that if parliament refuses to amend the election law, they will
boycott the November ballot. Most recently, the State Department issued a statement on July 24, regretting the recent
actions of Azerbaijan's parliament and urging the government and parliament in Baku to work with ODIHR, the
opposition and non-governmental organizations to amend the election law in accordance with OSCE standards.
Mr. Speaker, this turn of events is extremely disappointing. The last thing Azerbaijan needs is another election boycott
by opposition parties. The consequences would include a parliament of dubious legitimacy, deepened distrust and
societal polarization, and a movement away from electoral politics to street politics, which could threaten the country's
stability. November's election offers a historic opportunity to consolidate Azerbaijani society. It is essential for the future
development of Azerbaijan's democracy and for the legitimacy of its leadership that the election be free and fair and the
results be accepted by society as a whole.
This resolution calls on the Administration to remind President Aliev of the pledge he made in August 1997 to hold free
and fair elections, and urges Azerbaijan's Government and parliament to accept ODIHR's recommendations on the
election law, so that it will meet international standards. I hope my colleagues will join me, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Pitts and
Mr. Cardin in this effort, and we welcome their support.