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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 January 2008, 07:42 GMT
Cuba poll sets scene for Fidel's fate
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

No-one will be staying up watching television late into the night after Sunday's Cuban polls to see if there are any major upsets.

There are 614 candidates contesting 614 seats for the new National Assembly or Parliament.

Woman puts up election poster in Old Havana
Elections in Cuba are a low-key affair
There has been no campaigning, political rallies are not allowed and the most famous candidate, Fidel Castro, has not been seen in public for almost a year-and-a-half.

The only real indications that an election is taking place are the sheets of paper posted on shop and office windows, with a photograph and short biography of each candidate.

Yet more than 90% of voters are expected to turn out on Sunday for what is a key step in determining whether 81-year-old Mr Castro remains as head of state.

Under the constitution, the new National Assembly has to meet within 45 days to approve, from among its own numbers, the country's president, vice-president and executive Council of State for new five-year terms.

'Important role'

Mr Castro handed temporary power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006, after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery.

The world's longest-serving communist leader, Fidel has been this island's undisputed head since overthrowing the dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution.

President Lula and Fidel Castro
Lula said Castro was lucid and in good health
But despite being too frail to campaign or speak in public, Fidel Castro is standing for re-election to the National Assembly.

What remains unclear, though, is whether he intends to seek re-selection for the presidency as well.

In a letter sent to a Cuban television programme late last year, he wrote that "my primary duty is not to cling to any position, and even less to obstruct the rise of younger persons".

Yet just before Christmas, Raul Castro appeared to suggest that his older brother still had an important political role to play, saying that he had full use of his mental faculties and was being consulted on all important policy issues.

Last week, Fidel met Brazil 's President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Afterwards the Brazilian leader described him as being lucid and in good health and "ready to take on his political role in Cuba and his historical role before the world".

Ramon Pez, head of National Assembly's International Relations Committee
It's good to know relief is already here, we don't have to train or educate them
Ramon Pez

Many Western observers here believe that a decision on whether Fidel Castro intends to retire will not become clear until the very last minute.

If there is a change at the top then 76-year-old Raul Castro remains frontrunner. There is speculation about a possible generational jump, with vice-president and de-facto prime minister Carlos Large, 56, as a leading contender.

One major generational jump, though, is definitely taking place.

Those who took part in the revolution are mostly in their late 60s, 70s and 80s.

In response, the Communist Party urged young Cubans to stand in this year's elections to pump new blood into the country's political leadership.

Sixty-three per cent of candidates for the National Assembly are new, standing for the first time.

Fifty-six per cent were born after the revolution, so are under 50 years old. Forty-three per cent are women.

Ramon Pez is one of the old guard now standing for his fifth term as deputy. As a teenager he took part in student protests against Batista, today he is head of the National Assembly's International Relations Commission.

"We who made the revolution have to think about who's going to take over from us," he says. "It's good to know relief is already here, we don't have to train or educate them.

"They will guarantee that the revolution continues with the same principles and objectives that we had almost 50 years ago."

'Travesty of democracy'

Half of the candidates are chosen by municipal authorities, the other half by organisations linked to the state, such as trade unions and the women's movement.

Critics call it a travesty of democracy that should be replaced by multi-party elections.

Cuba says its system, set up in 1976, is the most democratic in the world because money cannot buy votes and delegates are chosen at a neighbourhood level.

Cuba's 8.4 million voters are given a list of candidates for their region and are strongly encouraged to check a single box supporting all of them.

If they do not like one candidate or another, they can tick individual boxes next to names and leave others blank. In theory a candidate must get 50% of the vote to win. So far, though, it is not believed anyone has ever been rejected.



SEE ALSO
Castro 'unfit to speak publicly'
16 Jan 08 |  Americas
Castro 'ready to return' - Lula
16 Jan 08 |  Americas
After Castro
06 Apr 06 |  Crossing Continents
Castro 'well enough for election'
25 Dec 07 |  Americas

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