HAVANA (AP) — Millions of Cubans voted Sunday for parliamentary candidates in elections critics say are closed and offer no real competition, but that the government defends as grass-roots democracy.
The elected unicameral legislature will convene Feb. 24 and pick a new parliament chief for the first time in two decades, with the body's longtime leader, Ricardo Alarcon, not on the ballot.
The body is also expected to rename Raul Castro, whom state TV showed casting his ballot in the eastern province of Santiago, as president for another five years.
Voting began last October with municipal elections.
Term limits do not exist in Cuba, but on various occasions Castro has proposed limiting public officials including the president to two consecutive periods in office.
Government critics call Cuban elections perfunctory, noting that only the Communist Party is permitted on the island and only one approved candidate is on the ballot for each seat in parliament. Castro and his older brother Fidel, now retired, have headed up the government for five decades.
Among those voting in Havana on Sunday was Fidel Castro, who appears in public only occasionally now since he fell ill in 2006 and stepped aside permanently less than years later. The former Cuban leader was among 25 National Assembly candidates from the eastern city of Santiago.
Authorities say the lack of multiple parties or political campaigning keeps corruption and special-interest money out of elections, and point to high turnout as proof that it's a participatory system.
Parliamentary candidates don't need to belong to the Communist Party, but those who don't generally are members of allied organizations.
"It is a different electoral system. Personally I find it is more democratic than (others) I know," Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said after casting his ballot at a school in an upscale neighborhood of western Havana.
More than 8 million islanders are eligible to vote, and will approve 612 members of the National Assembly and over 1,600 provincial delegates. The government said turnout in 2008, when the last parliamentary election was held, was 96.8 percent.
"I come to vote of my own volition with the hope that we will see the delegates and representatives do their job, that they don't just get comfortable, that we see improvement," said Arnaldo Herrera, a 54-year-old electrician, at a polling site in historic Old Havana.
"They need to do something, for example fix buildings that have problems. Some of them are falling down," Herrera added. "''People need to feel satisfied by what they do."