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article imageCubans vote in municipal elections with eye to leadership change

By Rigoberto DIAZ (AFP)     Nov 26, 2017 in World

Cubans choose municipal councilors Sunday in island-wide local elections that are the first step in a Communist Party-supervised process meant to culminate next year with the election of a successor to President Raul Castro.

Castro, 86, cast his ballot at a voting station in western Havana, where he stopped to talk to neighbors and students who were guarding ballot boxes, images aired on Cuban television showed.

No opposition candidates are competing in the elections for the more than 12,500 council seats.

Instead, voters will choose from among 30,000 candidates selected by acclamation in neighborhood assemblies.

More than eight million people are eligible to cast ballots, but voting is voluntary. Ballots are secret. More than 82 percent turned out, as of two hours before polls closing, the head of the national elections board said.

Cuba's only direct election, the municipal vote is the first step in a tightly controlled, multi-step process for choosing leaders at higher levels of government.

It is set to culminate in February with the election of Castro's successor as president, in what would be the first generational change of leadership since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel.

For the first time in nearly six decades, it appears, Cuba's president will not be named Castro or be a member of the old guard that came to power during the revolution.

Sunday's balloting comes a day after Cuba marked the first anniversary of Fidel Castro's death.

All signs point to current First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel being chosen to replace 86-year-old Raul, who succeeded the ailing Fidel as president in 2008.

Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old engineer, slowly climbed to the top rungs of the Cuban hierarchy over a three-decade career under Raul's mentorship.

Castro is expected to remain head of the all-powerful Communist Party, however. He would be 90 when his current term ends in 2021.

- For Fidel and against Trump -

Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel (R) casts his ballot at a polling station in Havana&apo...
Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel (R) casts his ballot at a polling station in Havana's Playa neighborhood as Cubans voted, November 26, 2017, in an election with no opposition candidates
Joaquín HERNANDEZ, POOL/AFP

Cuba's electoral system, designed to perpetuate the country's communist system, provides for municipal council elections every two and a half years, and mayoral and parliamentary elections every five years.

The council members elected Sunday will propose half the candidates for election to the provincial assemblies and the parliament, which will then elect the council of state and the president. The other candidates are proposed by six social organizations close to the government.

The Communist Party does not put forward candidates, but it supervises the process and ensures there are no opposition candidates.

State-controlled media have launched an intense campaign to get out the vote, promoting it as a tribute to Fidel.

"Being present in these elections, heeding the call that he always made to us, is also a beautiful and heartfelt homage to Fidel," Diaz-Canel said Friday.

National Assembly President Esteban Lazo urged voters to turn out in massive numbers in "response to that president (Donald Trump) who goes around saying so many things about us."

Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations in 2015 after a half-century break, but ties have become strained since Trump took office.

- No opposition -

In theory, the electoral system allows any Cuban who has been put forward by the base to be elected to parliament and even to the council of state. In 2015, the opposition managed to field two candidates in the primaries, but they were later defeated.

This time, three opposition groups -- OTRO18, Candidates for Change and the Pinero Autonomous Party -- failed in their attempt to nominate 550 independent candidates in the municipal council elections.

Manuel Cuesta, a spokesman for OTRO18, said the government blocked the nomination of independents with "a barrage of actions in violation of the electoral law and the constitution," including temporary detentions and legal actions.

Another sector of the opposition, which Havana labels as "mercenaries," refused to participate at all, so as not to lend legitimacy to the process.

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