HAVANA -- As Cubans went to the polls yesterday, the ballot boxes, campaign posters and other trappings of democracy that are hauled out every Election Day were all in place. But there was something else that had not been present for many years - some degree of suspense.
As in the elections five years ago, and the ones five years before that, there was little doubt about who would win. The 614 candidates for Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power were all running unopposed.
For the first time since most Cubans won the right to cast ballots for parliament in 1993, however, there was some uncertainty about who would fill top leadership posts, which the new assembly will play a role in resolving.
"Historically, I can't say these elections have been very significant," said Frank Mora, an expert on Cuba at the National War College in Washington. "This time around, though, they're worth watching."
No one says that parliament, a body denounced by critics as little more than a rubber stamp, will alone decide the fate of Fidel Castro. But yesterday's elections set in motion a process that will determine within weeks whether Castro, who has ruled since 1959, will stay on as Cuba's leader. After falling ill in July 2006, Castro temporarily handed power to his brother, Raul.
The president and other top leaders are chosen by the Council of State, a 31-member body that will be appointed on Feb. 24 by the incoming parliament.
Some say no drastic change in Fidel Castro's Cuba can come until he dies, no matter what position he holds. "Fidel's power doesn't emanate from his positions," said Mora. "It comes from the fact he's Fidel. As long as he's alive and lucid, he'll exercise leverage in the strategic direction of Cuba."
Still, speculation is rife here that change is afoot - fueled by veiled comments by Castro, 81, that he has never intended to rule for life and believes in ceding power to a younger generation.
"We have to face different situations and important decisions," Raul Castro, 76, said on state television after voting early yesterday. Fidel Castro voted from the undisclosed place where he is recuperating.
On the streets of Havana, no one is sure what will happen next. There is talk that the constitution may be amended to create a new emeritus role for Castro. Some speculate that the talk of a younger generation taking over means that neither Castro will remain president.
If a new leader does emerge, that person is likely to be one of the candidates who skates to victory on Sunday, which has Cuba watchers in the United States scanning the candidate list a bit more closely this time.
The new assembly will include some veteran Communist Party loyalists. But the state-controlled news media has said the newcomers include more women and more Afro-Cubans than ever before. Sixty percent of the candidates have been born since the Cuban revolution.
If Cuba's assembly has been known for anything in the past, it is its string of unanimous aye votes, no matter the issue.
And although no candidate has ever lost a Cuban election, that does not mean voters cannot send subtle messages at the polls. In the last election, more than a million voters submitted blank ballots, nullified their ballot or voted for some but not all of the candidates, said Jorge I. Dominguez, a Harvard professor who follows developments in Cuba.