Cubans went to the polls to elect the 470 parliamentarians who will represent them in the National Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body.
Polling stations opened at 7 am local time (1100 GMT) on Sunday and more than eight million people are eligible to vote.
As of 11 a.m. local time (1500 GMT), turnout was 42 percent, according to Cuba’s National Electoral Council. Polling stations must close at 6:00 pm (22:00 GMT).
Burdened by shortages, inflation, and growing social unrest, the Cuban government encouraged unity, calling on citizens to vote together in a broad show of support for the communist leadership.
At the polls in his hometown of Santa Clara just after sunrise Sunday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the citizens would have the final say.
“Some may ignore the difficult economic situation before the vote, but I don’t think this will be the majority,” Diaz-Canel told reporters.
There are 470 candidates competing for 470 seats, with no opposition competitor and no electoral campaign. Most of the candidates for the Cuban Parliament are members of the Communist Party, the only legal party on the island.
The legislators name the presidential candidate who is elected by ballot among themselves. Diaz Canel, leader of the Cuban Communist Party, is expected to win a second term.
The vote comes as Cuba grapples with its worst economic crisis in decades, with food shortages, an unprecedented wave of immigration, rampant inflation and stifling US sanctions.
Non-voters were a defining feature of recent elections, which experts say could undermine the legitimacy of Cuba’s next government. In last November’s municipal elections, turnout fell below 70% for the first time. The opposition called for abstention as a sign of rejection of the electoral system.
Reporting from Havana, Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said the majority of the population suffers from high rates of inflation and frequent power outages.
“The government does not tolerate dissent and that is why all eyes will be on the turnout because it is the only way people can express their discontent,” she said.
Economist Omar Everlini told Al Jazeera that the government must work to change the state-dominated economy.
“The country needs a market. It should not be a market economy but Cuban socialism. Examples are Vietnam and China. We need an example of a one-party system that has managed to survive.”
Brian Nichols, the US Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, criticized the Cuban elections on Friday, saying the Cuban people “deserve” to choose their representatives freely.
“On Sunday, Cubans will once again be denied real elections for their National Council,” Nichols said on Twitter. When the only option is for the Communist Party and closed committees to select candidates to run without opposition, there is no democracy, only absolutism and misery. “Cubans deserve to have a choice,” he said.
After Nichols’ criticism, Diaz-Canel criticized the United States at the Ibero-American Summit in the Dominican Republic. The president condemned the US trade embargo on Cuba and Washington’s decision to keep the island on the list of state sponsors of “terrorism”.
“The government of the United States is determined to destabilize our country and destroy the Cuban revolution,” he said on Saturday.
Dissent has faded in the country since anti-government protests last July led to the trial and imprisonment of hundreds of people on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to vandalism and sedition.
Thousands of protesters have expressed concerns about food supplies and the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some have chosen to emigrate since then, while others say they were forced into exile. Those who remain say the government’s response has had a chilling effect on the opposition.
After the overthrow of US-backed leader Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba became a one-party state led by Fidel Castro and his successors. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has defied expectations by surviving decades of economic isolation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a key ally.