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Sunday, February 25, 2024
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Apr 7 2023 (IPS) - The uncertainty that’s the hallmark of a democratic election was absent on 26 March, the day Cubans were summoned to appoint members of the National Assembly of People’s Power, the country’s legislative body. A vote did take place that day – people went to the polls and put a ballot in a box. But was this really an election? Cubans weren’t able to choose their representatives – their only option was to ratify those selected to stand, or abstain.
If each seat already had an assigned winner, why even bother to hold an election? Why would people waste their Sunday lining up to vote? And why would the government care so much if they didn’t?
Voting, Cuban style
According to its constitution, Cuba is a socialist republic in which all state leaders and members of representative bodies are elected and subjected to recall by ‘the masses’. Cuba regularly goes through the motions of elections, but it’s a one-party state: the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) is constitutionally recognised as the ‘superior driving force of the society and the state’.
The CPC is indistinguishable from the state, and the party and its ideology penetrate every corner of society. This means the nomination process for elections can be presented as ‘non-partisan’, with candidates nominated as individuals rather than party representatives – they are all party members anyway.
Cubans vote in two kinds of elections: for municipal assemblies and the National Assembly. Candidates for municipal assemblies are nominated by a show of hands at local ‘nomination assemblies’. The most recent local elections took place on 27 November 2022, with a record-breaking abstention rate of 31.5 per cent – an embarrassment in a system that’s supposed to routinely deliver unanimous mass endorsement.
According to the new constitution and electoral legislation, National Assembly candidates are nominated by municipal delegates alongside nominations commissions controlled by the CPC through its mass organisations, from whose ranks candidates are expected to emerge. The resulting slate includes as many names as there are parliamentary seats available. There are no competing candidates, and as most districts elect more than two representatives, options are limited to selecting all proposed candidates, some, one or none. But all a candidate needs to do is obtain over half of valid votes cast, so ratification is the only possible result. That’s exactly what happened on 26 March.
At the minimum, democracy could be defined as a system where it’s possible to get rid of governments without bloodshed – where those in power could lose an election. In all of Cuba’s post-revolution history, no candidate has ever been defeated.
A different kind of campaign
Unsurprisingly, since there is no real competition, there are typically no election campaigns in Cuba. Instead, there’s a lot of political and social pressure to participate, while abstention is accordingly promoted by the political opposition and democracy activists.
Eager to avoid the abstention rate seen in the November municipal elections, the government spared no effort. Against its own legal prohibitions of election campaigns, it ran a relentless propaganda assault.
Eyewitness accounts abounded of a voting day characterised by apathy, with no evidence of lines forming at voting places. A number of irregularities were reported, including coercion and harassment, with people who hadn’t voted receiving summons or being picked up from their homes. The official statement published the following day – that lack of independent observation made impossible to verify – reported a 76 per cent turnout that the government presented as a ‘revolutionary victory’. It might have helped that the electoral rolls had been purged, with over half a million fewer voters than in the previous parliamentary election held in 2018.
But a closer look suggests that abstention is becoming a regular feature of Cuban election rituals – this was the lowest turnout ever in a legislative election – and beyond this, other forms of dissent in the polls are growing, including spoilt ballots.
What elections are for
In Cuba, elections are neither the means to select governments nor a channel for citizens to communicate their views. Rather, they serve a legitimising purpose, both domestically and internationally, for an authoritarian regime that seeks to present itself as a superior form of democracy. They also serve to co-opt and mobilise supporters and demoralise opposition.
Ritual elections just one of many tools the regime employs to maintain power. Determined to prevent a repetition of mobilisations like those of 11 July 2021, the government has criminalised protesters and activists and curtailed the expression of dissent online and offline.
But all this, and the efforts to present a lacklustre election as a glittering victory, only reveal the cracks running through an old system of totalitarian power in decay. In Cuba, the fiction of a unanimous general will is a thing of the past.
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