Cubans voted on Sunday in the first round of balloting that ultimately could indicate whether Fidel Castro will formally remain communist Cuba's leader, or perhaps opt for a permanent power handover.
Some 38,000 voting precincts opened with more than 8.3 million Cubans over the age of 16 eligible to vote for some 15,000 council seats in the Americas' only one-party communist state.
The election process is to culminate by early next year with a new national assembly and selection of 31 members of Cuba's Council of State.
But Castro, 81, continues to be sidelined from power since he underwent gastrointestinal surgery in last July.
Raul Castro, 76, is serving as interim president of Cuba, while his elder brother recovers.
The elections are expected to clarify eventually whether the status quo of the interim government led by Raul Castro will be left in place permanently, or if Fidel formally will stay at the council's helm, leading this island of slightly more than 11 million people.
Many Cubans expect that Fidel Castro will be sidelined definitively, while continuing to write his editorials, and that Raul Castro eventually will wade into some cautious economic reforms.
On the eve of balloting on Saturday, Castro hailed the country's electoral process as superior to that of its northern neighbor the US, which also is in the throes of a protracted election campaign.
"Our elections are the antithesis of those held in United States ... There, first you have to be very rich, or have an enormous amount of money behind you," said Castro in an editorial in the official daily Granma.
In the US "to be elected president, you need hundreds of millions [of dollars], which come straight out of the coffers of the big monopolies.
"A candidate can win who actually got a minority of the popular vote," Castro marveled, in a jab at US President George W. Bush.
"There is fraud, trickery, ethnic discrimination and even violence," Castro said of the US electoral system, in his latest missive in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper.
Although Cuba considers its elections democratic, the US and many western nations see the Cuban electoral process as bereft of real choice.
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