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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
Cuba begins its election process
A woman voting in Havana
Cuba says its electoral system is one of the fairest in the world
Millions of Cubans have voted in municipal polls, starting an election cycle that could decide if Fidel Castro will officially stay Cuba's leader.

The electoral process will culminate next March in the election of a new National Assembly.

The assembly will then choose the Council of State, which President Fidel Castro has led since the early 1960s.

Mr Castro temporarily handed power to his younger brother, Raul, for health reasons more than 14 months ago.

Cuban media reported that Fidel Castro, who last year had intestinal surgery and has not been seen in public since, cast his own ballot in private at the undisclosed location where he is recuperating.

Voting is not obligatory but Cuban officials said they expected there had been a 90% turnout.

The communist government in Cuba describes its electoral system, which was enshrined in the constitution of 1976, as one of the freest and fairest in the world, where almost anyone can be elected to a municipal council or national assembly seat.

'Cosmetic exercise'

However, critics like the US and the EU, along with dissidents on the island, disagree.

They say the electoral process in Cuba is merely a cosmetic democratic exercise, which has no place for government opponents, as it is fully overseen by the country's ruling Communist Party.

Raul Castro
Raul Castro took over as acting president at the end of July last year
The municipal elections for some 15,236 council members begins a process that will culminate in a new National Assembly and the selection of 31 members of Cuba's Council of State.

It could be then that a decision is taken on whether Raul Castro should officially replace 81-year-old Fidel as president of the island's supreme governing body.

Since Raul Castro took over as acting president at the end of July last year, the status quo has reigned in Cuba and there has been no sign that the ruling Communist Party has lost any of its hold on power.

This is despite predictions to the contrary from Washington and the leadership of the Cuban exile community in Miami.

But in a sign that it recognises its system is one primarily governed by ageing revolutionaries, the Communist Party urged young Cubans to stand for municipal council seats in the hope of pumping younger blood into the government's ageing political structure.

On Wednesday, US President George W Bush is due to unveil what the White House calls new initiatives to help Cubans push for democracy.

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