Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip?

An image taken from Cuban Television on Nov. 26, 2017, shows Cuban President Raul Castro, second right, preparing to cast his vote at a polling station in Havana’s Playa neighborhood during municipal elections.
An image taken from Cuban Television on Nov. 26, 2017, shows Cuban President Raul Castro, second right, preparing to cast his vote at a polling station in Havana’s Playa neighborhood during municipal elections. AFP/Cuban Television

The voter turnout for Cuba's recent elections would be considered massive most anywhere. But in a country under communist rule for nearly six decades, Sunday’s unprecedented drop in the number of ballots cast shattered the illusion of unanimity at a time when the country faces a complex generational transition of power.

The 85.94 percent turnout for island-wide municipal elections was the lowest participation since the late Fidel Castro imposed a socialist version of elections in 1976.

Another 8.19 percent of the votes were left blank or annulled, according to official numbers made public on Monday by the president of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), Alina Balseiro. That represents more than 20 percent of the population who didn’t care enough to vote or rejected the government-sanctioned candidates.

“The results show that they are losing their grip, that they are not as strong as they used to be,” Cuban opposition activist Ailer González said.

Sunday's round of balloting was for 12,515 members of 168 municipal People’s Power Assemblies, Cuba's version of local governments. The process will conclude in February when the newly elected members of the National Assembly of People’s Power select the head of the Councils of Ministers and State.

Election results came in late on Monday and stories on the outcome were quickly buried in the state-controlled press.

But the lower-than-expected turnout was clear by 5 p.m. Sunday. The NEC reported that 82.5 percent of the more than 8.8 million registered voters had cast ballots and extended the voting period for one hour, to 7 p.m., because of “intense rains in central and eastern Cuba,” according to the official Communist Party newspaper Granma.

A turnout of nearly 86 percent would be extremely high for any Western democracy. But in Cuba turnout usually hit 97-98 percent during the 1980s and 90s, and was slightly lower in the 2000s.

Voter turnout started to noticeably drop after 2010, the first elections after Raúl Castro officially succeeded his older brother Fidel, and hit 90 percent in the last election in 2015.

The real numbers this year may be even lower than what was announced, according to opposition activists who have long questioned the official statistics made public by the NEC.

“Their trustworthiness is zero for me. It's naive to believe that they are going to honorably count the results,” said dissident Antonio Rodiles. Turnout is usually very high, he added, “because even though people know that it's theater, they also know that they keep track of who votes.”

Among the tactics regularly used to get voters to precincts are home visits during election day to ask people why they have not yet voted, Rodiles added. “They often use children, the so-called Pioneers, who also deliver ballots to the homes” of disabled voters.

Turnout in the island's second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, was “very low,” José Daniel Ferrer, head of the dissident Cuban Patriotic Union, said in a video posted on the internet Sunday. Communist party militants “were desperately going house to house in the late afternoon looking for voters who refused to go to the polls.”

Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel speaks with the press after voting at a polling station in Havana’s Playa neighborhood on Nov. 26, 2017, during municipal elections. YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

The weekend elections had been postponed for a month because of disruptions caused by Hurricane Irma. The results indicate that the successor to Raúl Castro, who has promised to retire in February, will inherit a country very different from the one ruled since 1959 by the Castro brothers.

Granma published a photo of Raúl Castro casting his vote Sunday morning, but the official comments to the news media came from Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, another hint that he is Castro's most likely successor.

The future presidents of Cuba “will always defend the Revolution and will rise from among the people. They will be elected by the people,” Díaz-Canel told journalists.

“Are people forced to vote or do they take on a duty, take on an expression of continuity” in the socialist system? he asked. “I believe in continuity and I am certain that we will always have continuity.”

As in past years, Rodiles said, the government launched an intense campaign to get out the vote that included posters, TV announcements and “information linking the balloting to the regime's continuation.” The state's news media monopoly highlighted the fact that Sunday came one year and one day after Fidel Castro's death.

Dissidents reported earlier that authorities had blocked more than 100 opposition activists linked to the #Otro18 campaign from running in the municipal elections.

A group also linked to #Otro18, the Citizen Observers of Electoral Processes, said the balloting was normal but alleged some “incidents” that damaged “the transparency of the process.”

Authorities blocked eight of its members from monitoring the counting of the ballots and kept about 20 voters from casting ballots around the country.

“There's also a report that in one polling place … in Santiago de Cuba, a group of elderly voters were coerced to vote for one of the two candidates,” the group reported.

The organization said it deployed more than 270 observers in 13 of the 15 provinces — a small number for the more than 24,000 polling centers around the country — and added that its information “came from polling places closely monitored and with verifiable information.”

Cuba does not allow international observers to monitor its elections.

Ferrer said several members of his group were detained Sunday to block their plans to monitor vote counts. Opposition activist Rosa María Payá alleged similar harassment against members of Cuba Decide, a campaign demanding a plebiscite on the island's political system.

Payá, Ferrer and other activists have been urging voters to deface their ballots or write in “Cuba Decide” or “plebiscite.” Several dissidents turned up at polling stations Sunday to request that blank or annulled votes be tallied as part of the total votes cast. The majority needed for election is now based on the number of valid votes cast. All the requests were denied.

“Today proved the Cuban electoral farce,” Payá said in a video recorded in Havana. “It proved the regime is afraid to count on the support of all Cubans.”

Despite a growing sense of political apathy and discontent in the country, González believes that the results won’t create a crisis for the Castro government. “They’ll use it to create an apparent sense of credibility and that the island is a normal country. In no country do 100 percent of people vote.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres