By Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban opposition leaders said they failed to get anyone nominated as a candidate for municipal elections, falling at the first hurdle as the Communist-run island embarks on a political cycle that will end 60 years of Castro brothers' rule.
This month's municipal elections are the first stage in a process that will conclude with a new national assembly voting in February for a president to replace 86-year-old Raul Castro, who has promised to step down after two five-year terms.
Some Cubans hope the handover of power from the leaders of the 1959 revolution to a new generation will bring more political openness. Others neither expect nor want much to change, pointing out that Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, the only legal party in Cuba.
In the one part of Cuba's political cycle where dissidents stand a chance of winning, neighborhood nomination assemblies have in recent weeks chosen candidates for elections to 12,515 ward positions in towns across the nation of 11 million people.
Several hundred dissidents had sought nomination - an unprecedented number - although none made it through to the list of 27,221 candidates, according to opposition electoral platforms Otro18 and Candidates for Change.
Dissident leaders blamed their failure partly on repressive tactics by authorities, but said they had shown there were viable political alternatives.
"The process of democratization from below has started," said Manuel Cuesta Morua, spokesman for Otro18.
The government did not reply to a request for comment. Reuters was unable to verify the opposition's figures and their efforts were not reported by state-run media, meaning most ordinary Cubans did not hear about them.
In Cuba's provincial and national votes, candidates are nominated by commissions composed of representatives of Communist Party-controlled organizations such as the trade union federation.
Cuba's leaders say the country's elections are more democratic than western models, which they say are characterized by big business and corruption. The fractured opposition has traditionally called Cuban elections a farce and boycotted them.
Even so, opposition electoral platforms have emerged over the past few years, saying the time is ripe to change Cuba from within the system.
"SECURITY THREATENED ME"
The election comes at a delicate time, as Cuba battles to keep a detente with the United States alive and its economy afloat as aid from key ally Venezuela dwindles.
Several dissidents told Reuters that authorities prevented them from attending or speaking at neighborhood nomination assemblies, shifting the dates or seeking to intimidate them.
"State security threatened me," said Abdel Legra, who decided against nominating himself as he did not want to get his neighbors, most of whom work for the state, in trouble by backing him. "The problem is that the vote is by hand count, it's public."
The postponement of the electoral cycle by a month, which authorities said was due to damage caused by Hurricane Irma, put a spanner in the works for several dissidents, who had already planned trips abroad.
The Communist Party says it does not intervene in the elections. But in a leaked video, First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro's probable successor, said the party would seek to discredit "counter-revolutionary" candidates.
Cuba brands all dissenters as mercenaries funded by foreign governments and exiles, out to topple the government.
In 2015, two dissidents managed to get nominated but said election officials altered their autobiographies to say they had ties to "counter-revolutionaries" based or financed abroad.
One of those, Hildebrando Chaviano, said he did not attend his assembly this year, saying he felt it would be a "circus." Authorities visited his neighbors days before, he said, warning them not to vote for him.
That assembly ended up nominating the current municipal delegate, a party veteran.
Many dissidents said they would continue taking part in grassroots politics to get their voices heard. Chaviano said he was giving courses on leadership and economics.
"This is just the beginning," he said.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)