Cubans ratified a slate of parliamentary candidates on Sunday including Fidel Castro, the ailing 81-year-old leader who has not been seen in public for nearly 18 months.
Only one choice appeared for each post in districts across the country and there was no campaigning. The Communist Party is the only party allowed, but the government says membership is not a prerequisite for the parliament that rubber stamps official party policy.
Still, Cubans lined before dawn to cast their ballots. Some 8.4 million voters were being asked to back 614 top Communists, career politicians, musicians and athletes for posts in the legislature, known as the National Assembly.
Electoral officials said an estimated 95 percent of registered voters had cast ballots as of an hour before polling stations closed Sunday evening. More complete results are expected Monday afternoon.
Castro, Cuba’s unchallenged “Maximum Leader” since 1959, provisionally ceded power in July 2006 following emergency intestinal surgeries and is still recovering. But he has remained head of the Council of State, the island’s governing body, and re-election to parliament from Santiago in eastern Cuba makes him eligible to be named to the post again.
Candidates lose if they do not get more than 50 percent of the vote, although National Assembly officials don’t remember that happening since Cubans began voting for parliament in 1993.
New parliament will meet Feb. 24
Castro’s younger brother Raul, who has been governing during Fidel’s illness, announced that the new parliament will meet Feb. 24 and declare a new Council of State. The elder Castro has run unopposed for council head in past parliament votes, but Raul did not say whether he would again be named council leader or retire.
“We have to face different situations and great decisions,” he said.
Among those seeking re-election was National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, who has said for months he will vote to keep Fidel Castro as head of the Council of State.
“You should have no doubt that he’s ready,” Alarcon told reporters. “He is in a position to continue that job, and the vast majority of Cuba will be more than happy (about that), myself included.”
A sham election?
The U.S. government and opposition leaders dismissed the election as a sham and say reported turnouts lead to a false sense of unanimity.
The State Department said Friday the elections are not a break with past practice in Cuba and do not represent a real opportunity for the islanders to decide for themselves how and by whom they will be governed.
The Cuban government counters that its balloting is more democratic than most because those running are chosen by municipal leaders nominated during neighborhood gatherings.
“Looking at the United States, it seems more like a popularity contest then elections,” said Vice President Carlos Lage. “These are elections without politics, without fraud, without money nor propaganda campaigns and elections that are based on merit.”
At 56, Lage is one of the country’s youngest top leaders and often mentioned as a third successor to Cuba’s presidency after Fidel and Raul Castro.
‘A guide, master, moral inspiration’
Fidel Castro said in a note read on state television that he voted after electoral officials brought a special ballot to the undisclosed location where he is recuperating.
“We continue to see him as guide, master, moral inspiration,” Amelia Alvarez, a 52-year-old school administrator said as she waited to vote. “He is very strong and will continue to be so: healthy, and recovering more every day.”
Voters at district polling places overseen by schoolchildren were strongly encouraged to check a single box supporting the full slate of candidates, although if they object to some candidates, they can mark individual boxes by names they support and leave others blank.
A new parliament is elected every five years.
Fidel Castro, who has been penning essays on a wide array of topics for publication in state newspapers, wrote in December that he has no intention of clinging to power or standing in the way of a new generation of leaders. But he also praised the example of a celebrated Brazilian architect who is still working at 100.
“I am not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections,” he wrote on Wednesday. “I do what I can: I write,” he added, seeming frustrated. “Writing is not the same as speaking.”
Many Cubans feel compelled to vote because failing to do so can draw unwanted attention from pro-government neighborhood watch committees, whose support can be needed to get jobs, housing or other official approvals.