By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA (Reuters) -Upwards of 70% of eligible Cubans had cast ballots by late Sunday afternoon in an election for the 470 lawmakers who will represent them in the country´s National Assembly, with voter turnout topping that of two previous votes in 2022, officials said.
Participation in Sunday’s election was widely seen by both pro- and anti-government groups as a proxy for gauging support for Cuba’s communist leadership at a time of deep economic crisis and growing social unrest.
Election officials said Sunday evening that turnout had topped 70% by 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), with two hours still remaining before voting stations closed at 7 pm. That turnout bested both participation in municipal elections in November and a referendum on the Cuban family code, which legalized gay marriage, in September.
Though results are not expected until Monday or Tuesday, Cuba´s government, saddled by shortages, inflation and record-breaking migration, is likely to claim the stronger than expected turnout as a success after weeks of rallying for a “unity vote” in support of former leader Fidel Castro’s six-decade old Cuban revolution.
Cuba polices its own elections and does not allow independent, international observers to monitor the proceedings.
Anti-government groups, primarily off-island in a country that restricts dissident political speech, had encouraged voters to stay home in protest, saying a vote had no meaning in a one-party system with no formal opposition or international oversight.
The 470 candidates on Sunday´s paper ballot were vying for 470 open seats in the legislature. In order to win a place in the National Assembly, a candidate must receive more than half the votes of those who cast ballots.
There were no opposition candidates in the election, and the majority of those running were members of the country’s Communist party or allied groups.
The winning candidates, who serve for five years, will choose the next president of Cuba from among their ranks.
Sitting President Miguel Diaz-Canel is widely expected to be re-elected by lawmakers.
Legislators elected Sunday will also debate and pass laws that will regulate the press and the right to protest.
Diaz-Canel, who spoke with reporters shortly after voting in his hometown of Santa Clara, said he was confident Cubans would turn out to vote despite predictions to the contrary. Abstention had been on the rise in Cuba over several elections.
Cuba’s president also blasted long-time foe the United States for what he called its “hostile narrative” towards Cuba and its elections, urging Cubans to vote to defend their homeland against foreign intervention.
“This is a vote to defend the Revolution, to defend socialism,” Diaz-Canel said early on Sunday.
On the eve of the vote, Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said Cuban elections offered no “real choice.”
“When the only choice is the Communist party and closed committees choose candidates to run unopposed, there is no democracy, only autocracy and misery,” he wrote on Twitter.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; additional reporting by Mario Fuentes, Anett Rios and Alexander Frometa; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Raju Gopalakrishnan)