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Cubans vote in national election

Millions of Cubans have voted for parliamentary candidates in an election that critics say is closed with no real competition, but defended by the government as grassroots democracy.

The elected legislature will convene on February 24 and pick a new parliament chief for the first time in 20 years, with the body's long-time leader, Ricardo Alarcon, not on the ballot.

The body is also expected to rename Raul Castro, whom state TV showed casting his ballot in the eastern province of Santiago, as president for another five years.

Voting began last October with local elections.

Term limits do not exist in Cuba, but on various occasions Castro has proposed limiting public officials including the president to two consecutive periods in office.

Government critics call Cuban elections perfunctory, noting that only the Communist Party is permitted on the island and only one approved candidate is on the ballot for each seat in parliament. Mr Castro and his older brother Fidel, now retired, have headed the government for five decades.

Among those voting in Havana on Sunday was Fidel himself, who appears in public only occasionally now since he fell ill in 2006 and stepped aside permanently less than years later. A photograph published on the website of the Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde showed him at a polling station wearing a check shirt and dark jacket.

Authorities say the lack of multiple parties or political campaigning keeps corruption and special-interest money out of elections, and point to high turnout as proof that it is a participatory system.

Parliamentary candidates do not need to belong to the Communist Party, but are generally members of allied organisations.

More than eight million islanders are eligible to vote and will approve 612 members of the National Assembly and over 1,600 provincial delegates. The government said turnout in 2008, when the last parliamentary election was held, was 96.8%.

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