Cuba Opens Election Year 2008
The United States presidential election campaign will be top news until voting day in November, as the question of who will govern the world’s superpower concerns people around the globe. However, 2008 also brings the culmination of a less publicized but no less valid general election process in Cuba.
Neither the US nor Cuba cares much for the other’s electoral system. For many years Washington has discredited Cuban’s elections because there is no two-party system, which according to them, rules out opposition participation. They also criticize the multiple reelection of the Cuban president.
Havana counters that the US model excludes most of its population because of the massive influence of big money, corporate connections and private fundraising in the electoral process. The Cubans have also criticized the Electoral College mechanism that allowed George Bush to become president in 2000 despite receiving a half million votes less than his opponent.
HOW THE CUBAN ELECTIONS WORK
Cubans go to the polls on Sunday, January 20, to elect the members of their provincial legislatures and the national parliament to five-year terms. People can vote for individual candidates or the entire slate up for election in their voting district. To get elected a candidate must receive over 50 percent of the valid votes cast.
The new 614-member parliament then elects a 31-member Council of State and the nation’s president from within its ranks. The Council of State approves the members of the Council of Ministers (cabinet) from proposals made by the president.
Around half the candidates to the new parliament were first elected by voters in municipal elections in October. The other half were selected by labor and other mass organizations to guarantee representation from virtually all sectors of society, from farmers to scientists, to artists and community organizers, factory workers, educators and health workers.
Currently interest in Cuba and around the world centers less on the parliamentary election than on whether or not Fidel Castro will seek reelection as president, and if not, who will replace him.
Castro will almost certainly win a seat in parliament representing a constituency in eastern Santiago de Cuba. However, by the time the new parliament meets in February or March, he must make his decision on whether to seek reelection to the presidency or take on a senior statesman role.
The Cuban leader met Tuesday with visiting Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, his first photographed appearance since October. Shortly after their two and half hour encounter, Lula told the press that the Cuban leader seemed healthy and “incredibly lucid.”
Nonetheless, Fidel himself stated in a newspaper commentary published on Wednesday, “I am not physically fit to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections on Sunday.”
The lead up to the two votes is like night and day.
The US field is crowded at this point with over a dozen candidates, to be culled after the “Super Tuesday” primaries in more than twenty states on February 5. Candidates woo their audiences with campaign promises tailored to please specific segments of the population. Advertising builds the candidate’s image as a carefully packaged product and often plays on voter fears about terrorism, the economy, immigration, etc.
In Cuba, campaigning is a synonym for unethical politicking and does not take place. With no advertising on TV, radio and the newspapers, no opinion polls, no billboards or front yard signs, and no candidate debates, the Cuban elections are quite dull by comparison.
While there is a wealth of ideas on how to deal with the island’s pressing problems, they are not discussed by the candidates. Such a debate takes place behind closed doors at the parliament, city councils and at workplaces.
The candidates run on their individual merits, commitment to the revolution and experience. After the rigorous and participative selection process, the entire slate is presented by political leaders and the media as ideal to represent the population.
The current candidacies are a diverse representation of Cuban society. A little over a third or 224 candidates (36.78 percent) are incumbents seeking reelection with the other 390 first timers, 42.16 percent are women, 78.34 percent have college degrees and 20.68 percent have a high school and/or technical degrees. Over a third (219) are black or mixed race.
The concept of a paid politician is absent in Cuba. The legislators continue at their regular jobs with time off for attending their constituency and the parliament committee and plenary sessions.
Likewise, no Cuban lawmaker ends up on corporate boards after leaving office in return for having bent to special interest groups.
Encouraging people to vote for the entire slate of candidates is the closest thing to campaigning that occurs in Cuba. People are urged to combat the stepped-up US hostility with a show of unity in support of the revolution.
While not everyone agrees with the vote by slate proposal, a large majority are expected to cast their ballots in that fashion. Official returns in 2003, the last general elections, showed 91.35 percent of the valid votes cast for the full slate of candidates. Blank and spoiled ballots accounted for fewer than 4 percent.
With precincts being small to make voting easy, and elections held on Sunday, voter turnout is expected to be over 90 percent, the usual occurrence in all Cuban elections since 1976.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
For visitors to Cuba interested in seeing the island’s elections first hand, voter registration lists and candidate profiles are currently posted in convenient locations in each voting district. In addition, vote tabulation after the polls close is open to the public.
A novel feature of Cuban elections is the presence of 5th to 9th graders at polling stations. Besides getting acquainted with this important civic responsibility and guarding the ballot boxes, they also assist voters with disabilities.
On Election Day the polls will open on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., however anyone still in line at the scheduled time of closure is allowed to cast their ballot. The manual vote count is done in public immediately following the closing of the polls.