Cuba’s election season ended on a rainy Jan. 20 when 8.1 million citizens, age 16 or over — 95 percent of those eligible to vote — chose 614 delegates to the National Assembly and 1,201 delegates to 14 provincial assemblies, all for five-year terms. Voting that day concluded a process that began last September, when people in neighborhoods throughout the island selected 37,300 local nominees for election to municipal assemblies.

Elections in Cuba have lots of input from the ground up, including on nominations. The municipal assemblies, working with municipal candidacy commissions, selected 15,236 candidates from that number to compete in elections held in late October. At that time, from two to eight candidates from each district ran for election to the municipal assemblies. Candidacy commissions at the municipal, provincial and national levels are made up of citizens elected by mass organizations of women, labor, small farmers, students and neighborhood groups.

By Dec. 1, the municipal assemblies had selected from their members half the candidates for election to the national and provincial assemblies. The other half were selected by the national candidacy commission from nominees presented by mass organizations. The assemblies and commissions chose from a total pool of 55,000 nominees.

The candidates had until Jan. 15 to visit people in workplaces and public meetings in districts they would represent. Municipal Assemblies were required to approve the final list of candidates to be presented on Jan. 20.

Voters that day chose from a list of Assembly candidates representing their own municipalities. They could either vote in the entire list, or select only those who met their approval. To be successful, candidates had to gain at least 50 percent of the vote.

Cuba’s present electoral system has been in place since 1976. Campaigning is subdued, marked mainly by public displays of candidates’ pictures and biographies arranged by municipal authorities. Candidates spend no money on electioneering, nor are they paid during their terms of service. Voting, which is secret, is not mandatory; vote counting is public. Delegates are subject to citizen recall.

Cuba’s Communist Party takes no direct role in the process. Candidates include both members and non-members.

The election outcome broke new ground. Women will make up 43 percent of Cuba’s National Assembly — up from 36 percent in 2003 — and 41.8 percent of the provincial assemblies. Cuba moves from sixth to third in the world in the proportion of women parliamentarians; the world average is 17 percent. Quotas are not part of the election rules.

Cuba’s Communist Party reportedly has been working to introduce youth into the nation’s political leadership. In that vein, 63 percent of those elected Jan. 20 will take their seats in the Assembly as first-time delegates. Of the delegates to the National Assembly, 60.9 percent were born after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on New Years Day 1959, and 21.8 percent were less than ten years of age then. Over 17 percent lived under the Batista dictatorship as teenagers or adults.

University graduates make up 78.3 percent of those elected and Afro-Cubans, 36 percent.

The new National Assembly will convene Feb. 24, the first order of business being to elect the 31 members of Cuba’s Council of State, as well as its president, first vice president, five vice presidents, and secretary. The Assembly will also elect its own president, vice president and heads of the Assembly’s ten permanent commissions.

The council president also serves as president of the republic. Media coverage of the elections centered on speculation about whether President Fidel Castro, disabled since July 2006, will be a candidate for that office. He won election to the Assembly representing a municipality in Santiago de Cuba.

Interviewed a week before the elections, Ricardo Alarcon, current president of Cuba’s National Assembly, characterized “real democracy” as a “utopia.” The Cuban system, he said, “has defects but is an approach toward democracy, [one] more creative, more our own.”

To a Telesur reporter he cited John Kerry’s recent complaints about U.S. elections. The former U.S. presidential candidate described Indiana’s legislative restrictions on poll access and rules in Las Vegas preventing hotel workers from leaving work to vote.

A week earlier Alarcon took U.S. President George Bush to task for covering up U.S. imperfections, especially as “he’s the only guy to whom that crazy idea could occur of saying he’s going to export democracy.”

atwhit @ roadrunner.com

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