More than eight million voters will elect candidates for the National Assembly for a five-year term.

Cubans went to the polls on Sunday to vote for the 470 lawmakers who will represent them in the National Assembly, the island nation’s highest legislative body.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time (11:00 GMT) and more than eight million people are eligible to vote.

As of 11:00 a.m. local time (15:00 GMT), voter turnout had reached 42 percent, according to Cuba’s National Electoral Council (CEN). Polling stations are expected to close at 18:00 (22:00 GMT).

The Cuban government, plagued by shortages, inflation and growing social unrest, has encouraged unity and called on citizens to vote together in a broad demonstration of support for the communist leadership.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, voting just after dawn in his hometown of Santa Clara on Sunday, said citizens have the final say.

“Some people may put the difficult economic situation ahead of their willingness to vote, but I don’t think it will be a majority,” Diaz-Canel told reporters.

There are 470 candidates for 470 seats, with no opposition challengers and no campaign. Most candidates for the Cuban parliament are members of the Communist Party, the only legal party on the island.

The legislature will be responsible for nominating a presidential candidate, who will be elected by popular vote. Diaz-Canel, leader of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), is expected to win a second term.

The vote comes at a time when Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with food shortages, an unprecedented wave of migration, runaway inflation and crippling US sanctions.

Absent voters were a crucial feature in recent elections that experts say could undermine the legitimacy of Cuba’s next government. Voter turnout in the local elections last November fell below 70 percent for the first time. The opposition has advocated abstention as a sign of rejection of the electoral system.​​​​​​

Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Havana, said the majority of the population is struggling with rising inflation and recurring power outages.

“The government does not tolerate dissent, so all eyes will be on the abstention rate because it’s the only way people can express their dissatisfaction,” she said.

Omar Everleny, an economist, told Al Jazeera that the government should work to transform the state-dominated economy.

“The country needs a market. It doesn’t have to be a market economy, but Cuban socialism. The examples are Vietnam and China. We need an example of a one-party system that has managed to survive.”

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla prepares to vote at a polling station in Havana, Cuba [Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

Brian Nichols, the US undersecretary for western hemisphere affairs, criticized Friday’s elections in Cuba, saying the Cuban people “deserve to elect their representatives freely.”

“On Sunday, Cubans will once again be denied real elections for their National Assembly,” Nichols said on Twitter. “When the Communist Party is the only option and closed committees choose candidates to run without opposition, there is no democracy, only autocracy and misery. Cubans deserve to vote,” he said.

After Nichols’ criticism, Diaz-Canel proposed against the US at the Ibero-American Summit in the Dominican Republic. The President condemned the US trade embargo on Cuba and Washington’s decision to keep the island on a list of countries that support “terrorism”.

“The US government is determined to destabilize our country and destroy the Cuban revolution,” he said on Saturday.

The country’s opposition has been worn down since anti-government protests last July saw hundreds tried and jailed for crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to vandalism and hate speech.

Thousands of protesters had raised concerns about the food supply and the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some have now chosen to emigrate, while others say they were forced into exile. Those who remain say the government’s response had a chilling effect on dissent.

After the fall of US-backed leader Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba became a one-party state led by Fidel Castro and his successors. Since then, the PCC has defied all expectations, weathering decades of economic isolation and the breakup of the Soviet Union, a key ally.


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