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Cuban elections underway, as critics say they’re a sham

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 they deny charges that the country is undemocratic. Critics call them a sham since voters can’t throw out the Communist Party long led by Fidel and Raul Castro.

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A long, complicated 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.

On Sunday, Cubans will choose among these candidates for municipal assemblies that administer local governments.

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

In 2007-2008, voter turnout was 96.8 percent.

The government says perennially 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.

‘‘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 non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

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