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Originally published Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 2:07 PM

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Democracy — Cuban-style — gets under way

Elections in Cuba lack the hoopla they have in other countries, but authorities here say they give people a voice in government and refute charges that the country is undemocratic.

The Associated Press

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HAVANA — There are no flashy television ads or campaign signs spiked into front yards. And candidates definitely don't tour the island shaking hands and kissing babies.

Elections in Cuba lack the hoopla they have in other countries, but authorities here say they give people a voice in government and refute charges that the country is undemocratic. Critics call the elections a sham because voters can't throw out the Communist Party long led by Fidel and Raul Castro.

A long, complicated and unique electoral process is under way on this communist-run island, with more than 8 million Cubans going to the polls this weekend for municipal elections. The process culminates in February, when national-assembly legislators vote on who will occupy the presidency, a post held by Raul Castro since 2008.

The latest electoral exercise began in September when Cubans met in common spaces, parks and buildings for neighborhood assemblies to choose the candidates in municipal elections. Those assemblies nominated 32,000 candidates, and each electoral district must have between two and eight names on the ballot.

Sheets of paper with terse biographies and photos of the candidates were then taped up to strategically placed walls and windows in each neighborhood for residents to read. That's just about the only campaigning that's allowed.

On Sunday, Cubans will cast ballots to choose among these candidates for municipal assemblies that administer local governments and relay complaints on issues such as potholes and housing, social and sports programs.

After the local elections, commissions elected by workers, farmers, youth, student and women's groups then choose candidates for the national legislature, which eventually elects Cuba's next president.

Near-complete voter participation is expected. In 2007-2008, voter turnout was 96.8 percent.

The government says perennial high turnouts are a clear sign of support for the revolution. Dissidents say people vote for fear that not doing so could get them in trouble.

Polling places also turn into social gatherings for neighbors. Young students escort the elderly and the disabled to vote, and Cubans are reminded by state television, unions and women's groups that casting a ballot is a patriotic duty.

The entire process is devoid of party slogans, ads or logos, since only one party is legal in Cuba: the Communist Party, and its job is to "guide" society and its politics rather than impose candidates, said Ruben Perez, secretary of the National Electoral Commission.

"Voting is free, not obligatory and secret," he said. "Our system is totally transparent and we defend it like this. We think that it is very democratic.

"It is a different concept: no delegate represents any political interest, only society itself."

While the Communist Party's power and influence are enormous, candidates don't have to be party members.

But those who don't usually come from allied groups such as the Federation of Cuban Women and the neighborhood-watch Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

The nomination assemblies also see heated debate and criticisms about local problems such as slow police response, poor water supply and garbage pickup or unauthorized vending stands that block sidewalks.

But it is rare, almost unheard of, for a candidate to be nominated against the party's wishes, and there's no real electoral threat to the country's rulers. There are no direct elections for the presidency or for Communist Party leadership posts, which critics say hold real power in the country.

Members of the island's tiny dissident community have not been nominated when they tried in the past, and many boycott a system they consider illegitimate.

"To be truly democratic, besides being free, (the elections) should be competitive and the people able to choose among alternative programs, and in the case here there is only one program, that of the government," said Elizardo Sanchez, a dissident who runs the nongovernmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Sanchez said that while multiparty systems have deficiencies, the island's one-party electoral process "doesn't reflect the pluralism of Cuban society."

Cuban authorities say they have no plans to change the system.

"Our adversaries and even some of our sympathizers ... demand of us, as if we were a country living under normal conditions and not under siege, that we reinstall a multiparty model," Raul Castro said at a Communist Party conference in January.

But legalizing parties other than the Communist Party would be to "sacrifice the strategic arm of the unity of all Cubans that has made our dreams of independence and social justice a reality."

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