Civil society decries snap presidential election as not free and fair

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An illegitimate election

On 11th April, Azerbaijan held presidential elections - six months earlier than originally planned. The snap election took place under the authorities' directive who claimed that it was important to carry out the elections early due to the security situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Several representatives from the sector criticised the electoral process and the repressive environment around the elections, which included the opposition being marginalised, civil society pressured and independent media curtailed. According civil society in the country, the election lacked legitimacy, because

"the pre-election environment and electoral legislation do not provide for the conditions for free and fair elections".
Pressure on human rights lawyers

In May, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) issued a statement expressing concern over the attacks against lawyers defending human rights in Azerbaijan. Lawyers have been pressured and some have lost their license to practice. For example, on 23rd April, the Bar Association of Azerbaijan temporarily suspended the licenses of lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Neymat Kerimli. The two are defending journalist Afghan Mukhtarly, who is facing smuggling charges. IPHR called on the authorities to:

"guarantee that all lawyers are able to carry out their professional activities without hindrance and fear of reprisals". 
Government official on cooperating with civil society

In March 2018, the European Union launched plans to strengthen the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a joint initiative of the EU and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. According to the Azernews, the initiative aims to encourage cooperation between EaP countries and EU member states, particularly in relation to reforms in governance and the economy. It was launched in the presence of high-level officials from all participating countries. The event was significant for Azeri civil society, because Azerbaijan and the EU are in the process of negotiating a new strategic agreement. Azeri civil society has stressed the importance of including conditionalities in the agreement based on progress on democratisation and in the state's respect and protection of human rights and civic space. 

During the launch event, Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Mammad Guliyev said that progress has been made in the political arena and that the state will continue to foster the development of civil society. He also added that a strong civil society is very important in helping the government achieve some of the goals it has set. According to the Minister, the authorities understand the importance of the agreement, not only in terms of the international image of the country, but also in its economic relations.

As a result of the meeting, the decision was made to create a platform that includes various public institutions and civil society representatives. The Azeri official also pointed out that there is a domestic understanding of the fact that the negotiations between Azerbaijan and the EU on a new strategic partnership agreement include issues related to national civil society. He said Baku and Brussels will agree in the end on civil society-related issues. 

Though these official statements support civil society and its development, the authorities have, in fact, suppressed the sector and few independent organisations have been able to survive the repression over the years. 

Peaceful Assembly

Several opposition parties mobilised approximately 1,000 people on 31st March 2018 to demand that the government release political prisoners and hold free and fair elections, among other issues. According to media reports, the protest was organised by two main opposition parties in Azerbaijan - Musavat and National Council of Democratic Forces - calling for a boycott on the 11th. There were rumours of further protests leading up to the 11th April presidential election, thus authorities warned citizens to avoid any protest actions. Following the election, the Caucasian Knot reported that over 1,500 people had gathered at a stadium in Baku to protest the election results with posters and signs reading:

"I did not choose you". 

The protest was authorised by the authorities and there was a heavy police presence. 

Expression

Following the decision to hold presidential elections six months early, media monitoring organisations documented attempts to limit the right to free expression as well as cases of pressure being exerted on independent media. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Azerbaijan's authorities cleansed the political landscape of "virtually all formal avenues of expressing dissent". CPJ also added that "… blocking websites, hacking social media accounts, [and] imposing travel bans" have been among the tactics used by Aliyev's government to try to ensure that:

"independent media are muzzled and critical voices silenced".

Such curtailment and suppression of critical voices and independent thought has been ongoing in Azerbaijan for many years. This repressive environment has hindered civil society and other actors' ability to effect positive change.