Cubans to vote in suspense-free polls

Cubans go to the polls this weekend to choose 612 members of the national assembly, one in a series of votes leading up to the all but certain re-election later this month of President Raul Castro.

Polls are to open Sunday at 7.00 am (1200 GMT) and close at 6.00 pm (2300 GMT), in balloting derided by opponents of the Marxist regime as a "farce" and little more than a rubber stamp of the status quo.

Critics note that the number of candidates vying for seats in the legislature's next five-year-long term is identical to the number of open seats, leaving little suspense about the outcome.

Also up for grabs Sunday are 1,269 seats in 15 provincial assemblies.

More than 90 percent of the island's eight million voters are expected to turn out at the polls, but dissidents point out that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

"It is a farce," former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe told AFP.

Another prominent opposition figure, Elizardo Sanchez, called the election "a race with only one horse" -- since the Communist party is the only one running.

Although Cuba portrays its electoral system as a grass-roots democracy, there is only one legal party, the Communist Party, and no campaigning is allowed.

No dissident has ever been allowed to run for office and no national lawmaker has stood up to the Communist leadership by casting a no vote.

During last October's municipal vote, in a sign of disaffection with the regime despite recent economic reforms, government critics urged voters to write a "D" on their ballots, to press for a direct presidential vote.

Cuba watchers also say there has been an increasing number of blank ballots cast in recent elections.

Havana held a round of municipal elections in October, one in a series of votes ahead of Castro's impending coronation.

That election is followed by this weekend's voting and ultimately by the election of Cuba's State Council president -- a position held by Raul Castro.

That vote traditionally takes place on February 24, the anniversary of the start of the war of independence in 1895.

If Castro is re-elected -- and there is no doubt that he will be -- it would be his second five-year mandate as Cuba's leader.

While the election outcome is not in question, this year there is an element of novelty, with the introduction of term limits introduced by Castro.

During a Communist Party gathering in 2011, the octogenarian leader proposed that all top offices would be limited to two five-year terms.

That would mean that Castro will have to retire in 2018, when he is 86.

Castro was elected president in 2008, after taking over from his brother, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, whose health is faltering and who has largely retreated from the public eye.