Washington, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of the U.S. delegation that observed Sunday's presidential elections in Azerbaijan says the process was an improvement over the 1993 and 1995 elections, but still fell short of international norms because of violence, an election boycott by the opposition, ballot-stuffing and other serious irregularities.
Mark Palmer, who headed an 18-member observer group, made the comment Thursday at a press conference in Washington. The delegation was sponsored by the International Republican Institute (IRI) -- a private U.S. foundation affiliated with the Republican Party. Members of the team observed the elections in Baku, Ganja, Lenkaran, Naxjivan, Quba, Sumqayit and Yevlakh.
Palmer, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, says that despite irregularities, it was encouraging that the Azeri government took some positive steps toward electoral reform, including formally lifting press censorship and creating a new election law.
But he says most of the improvements came too late -- just three months before the polling -- to ensure an equitable and fair election. And not all of the reforms were effectively implemented, he says.
For example, Palmer says a degree of press censorship still continues in Azerbaijan. He says entire issues of opposition newspapers were confiscated following a September 12 opposition rally which ended in violence and arrests. He also says two female reporters were beaten after writing a September story on Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry. Perhaps most telling, says Palmer, is that most of the other journalists still engage in self-censorship to protect themselves and their publications.
But Palmer says there were additional election irregularities. One of them, he says, was the continuous use of state resources for campaigning by the ruling regime.
Palmer explains: "Each presidential candidate was allocated a small amount of funding for the campaign, but one could hardly turn around in Baku or most of the rest of Azerbaijan without seeing colorful posters for President (Heydar) Aliyev, with very few being seen for the other nominees, or turn on state television without watching almost continuous, favorable coverage of President Aliyev."
Palmer also says that he and other members of his team witnessed numerous incidents of ballot stuffing. He says such widespread practice calls into question the legitimacy of the election.
Other election irregularities include preventing members of his team from watching certain polling stations, says Palmer. He says that one team was blocked from entering a polling station in Baku -- a situation that was remedied only through the direct intervention of the Azeri President's office.
Palmer says he was also disturbed to hear that permits for opposition rallies were denied in some cities, while violence occurred at others. Palmer specifically mentioned a September 12 opposition rally in Baku which ended with 11 arrests, and one on October 9 that resulted in the arrest of at least 20 people.
Palmer says that many of the Azeri citizens he met told him that democracy has not had time to take hold in their country. He says some people stressed to him that Azerbaijan has been independent of Soviet control for only eight years, and international observers should not underestimate the difficulty of establishing democratic traditions.
But Palmer says that the IRI has witnessed superior elections around the world in poorer nations that have only recently emerged from a long history of dictatorship, including some in the former communist bloc.
Palmer says that Azerbaijan has at least two near-term opportunities to improve its election process. The first, he says, would be during the long-delayed local elections, which are now expected to be held in 1999, and parliamentary elections scheduled for sometime in the year 2000.
Palmer says those elections would also provide an opportunity for a now fractious opposition to offer a credible alternative to the current ruling regime.