Thu, Nov 22, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Havana announces date for national assembly election


Cuba announced on Tuesday it has set Jan. 20 for national elections that are part of the process of determining whether ailing President Fidel Castro will stay on as president.

The ruling, signed by interim leader Raul Castro, read on state TV, set the date for elections to provincial and national assemblies, voting that is held every five years.

There was no explicit mention of Fidel Castro, but the 81-year-old Cuban leader would have to be re-elected to the national parliament before he could repeat as president of the Council of State. Citizens do not directly elect Cuba's president.

Raul, 76, is the council's first vice president.

"This is an election with real suspense," said Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank outside Washington. "If he [Fidel Castro] doesn't put his name on the ballot, he is effectively resigning."

Peters said even if that happens, Castro could still play a key role as Communist Party general secretary -- arguably a more powerful job -- or in a new emeritus position.

The January elections will come almost 18 months after the elder Castro stepped aside on July 31 last year because of emergency intestinal surgery, provisionally ceding his functions to Raul and a team of other top leaders.

He has not been seen in public since, appearing only in official photographs and videos and regularly writing essays with mostly international themes.

The parliament, known in Cuba as the National Assembly, elects a new council every five years, several weeks after deputies are elected.

It was not announced when the new National Assembly would meet for the first time to renew the top council members.

Cuba's constitution calls for the council's first vice president, currently Raul, to fill the presidential slot when vacated.

Fidel, Cuba's unchallenged leader since 1959, held the council presidency since its 1976 creation.

Culture Minister Abel Prieto said in September that Fidel would disappoint many Cubans if he did not run, saying he was "convinced that the immense majority of our people, the overwhelming majority, want Fidel to continue as Council of State."

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