The United States is expressing concern about what are said to have been "widespread irregularities" in the national referendum held Saturday in Azerbaijan. Azeri authorities say the voting produced an overwhelming 97 percent majority in favor of constitutional changes proposed by President Heidar Aliyev, the country's leader since the Soviet era.
U.S. officials had been skeptical about the referendum process from the start, with the State Department last month suggesting a delay in the vote to allow more careful preparation. And officials here say, in the wake of the vote, information gathered by U.S. diplomats and the few international observers allowed to monitor the proceedings suggests massive fraud.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it augurs poorly for the presidential vote in Azerbaijan planned for next year. "There appear to have been widespread irregularities, such as the voter list fraud, multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing. We are very concerned that this referendum on August 24 did very little to advance democratization or to lay the groundwork for presidential elections in the fall of 2003 that can meet international standards," says Mr. Boucher. "We'll continue to support political pluralism in Azerbaijan, as well as transparency in government."
Mr. Boucher said one of the few positives about the referendum campaign was a series of televised round-table discussions that included opposition spokesmen. He urged Azerbaijani authorities to work with the OECD and non-governmental organizations to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure fair and impartial electoral processes in the future.
Members of the country's four biggest opposition parties said Monday they would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to try to overturn the referendum results. They allege, among other things, that the voter turnout was less than the 50 percent needed to make the vote valid.
Among the constitutional changes is a provision that would make the country's prime minister the caretaker president, if the chief executive left office early. Critics claim it is a way to allow President Aliyev, who is 79-years-old and in poor health, to continue a political dynasty by naming his son as prime minister and then going into retirement.