Oil and gas-rich Azerbaijan began voting Sunday in parliamentary elections on Sunday, amid charges by both local and international observers that the government is increasingly cracking down on its political opposition and dissenting voices in the media.

The ruling New Azerbaijan Party of President Ilham Aliyev is expected to be re-elected. Mr. Aliyev has presided over a resources - fuelled economic boom in his country.

Mr. Aliyev became president in 2003, succeeding his father Geidar, a former official with the Russian secret service who went on to dominate political life in Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused the Azerbaijani government of harassing members of the country’s small opposition press.

“There’s been just a steady deterioration in media freedoms, a steady closing of the space,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at HRW. “Journalists see their colleagues getting thrown in prison and it has a chilling effect.” Foreign observers have voiced increasing criticism of recent elections in Azerbaijan, whose energy resources could play a crucial role in Europe’s effort to diversify its oil and gas supply.

Several Azerbaijani journalists and bloggers who have criticized the Aliyev government have been imprisoned in recent years.

In the run-up to the election, the government banned the main opposition Popular Front-Musavat bloc from holding public rallies. It has also limited the bloc’s ability to claim a majority in the 125 - member parliament by only allowing it to contest 40 seats.

Some 4.8 million people are eligible to vote in the election, first results of which are expected after polls close at 1500 GMT.

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