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 Azerbaijan.
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 election. 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.