President Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel, will step down in April. His departure will mark a changing of the guard for Cuba's Communist Party after six decades of Castro rule.

Cuba's First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel (R) and his wife Lis Cuesta queue at a polling station in Santa Clara, Cuba, during an election to ratify a new National Assembly, on March 11,
Cuba's First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel (R) and his wife Lis Cuesta queue at a polling station in Santa Clara, Cuba, during an election to ratify a new National Assembly, on March 11, (AFP)

Polls for parliamentary elections opened across Cuba on Sunday morning, a key step in a process leading to the election of a new president, the first in nearly 60 years from outside the Castro family.

The new members of the National Assembly will be tasked with choosing a successor to 86-year-old President Raul Castro when he steps down next month.

Raul took over in 2006 from his ailing brother Fidel, who had governed since seizing power during the 1959 revolution.

Eight million Cubans are expected to turn out to ratify 605 candidates for an equal number of seats in the assembly, a process shorn of suspense and unique to the Communist-run Caribbean island nation.

Sunday's general election is the first since the death in 2016 of Fidel Castro, and marks the beginning of major change at the top in Cuba.

Candidates may be either members of the Cuban Communist Party or not, and may also belong to trade unions or be students.

TRT World's Ediz Tiyansan explains the voting process from a polling station in Havana.

"The designation of candidates is based on merit, abilities and the commitment of the people," Raul Castro said when he announced the elections last year.

"Nobody exchanges promises for votes, or boasts of his abilities to get supporters ... This is the true and exceptional face of what we proudly call socialist democracy," the official daily Granma wrote.

The transition in leadership comes at a time when the island nation is struggling economically, while facing further pressure from the Trump administration. 

Transition process

More than half of the candidates, 322 are women.

Cuba's president is designated by a 31-member Council of State, whose head is automatically president of the country. 

But the Council of State first has to be selected by the National Assembly.

Castro had already announced that he would not be seeking a new term, although he is expected to remain head of the all-powerful Communist Party until 2021.

Diaz-Canel likely to succeed

Castro's first vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, is widely expected to succeed him and is committed to guaranteeing continuity.

Born after the revolution, Diaz-Canel, an engineer, slowly climbed to the top rungs of Cuba's hierarchy over a three-decade career under Raul's mentorship.

"There will still be a president of Cuba in the process of defending the revolution," he said in November.

Julio Cesar Guanche, a professor of law and history, said on the OnCuba website that the legitimacy of the country's next president would come more from "institutional performance" than personal history such as involvement in the 1959 revolution.

High turnout expected

Turnout for the election is expected to be around 90 percent.

Although voting is voluntary, not voting is frowned upon and going to the polls is considered an act of sovereignty and of "revolutionary affirmation."

The final results will be known on Monday.

Opposition criticism of the process centers around the fact that the president is not chosen in direct elections.

Cuban dissident Rosa Maria Paya, of the Cuba Decide movement, wants a referendum on modifying the island's government system and says her group will be watching for signs "of rejection of the electoral process, in which in reality we cannot elect" anyone.

Cubans who want to demonstrate opposition typically spoil their ballots.

The Otro18 opposition movement is also calling for change.

"The citizens do not participate in the choice or the election of the president and we think it's a decisive moment for the citizens to push a request" to change the electoral system, said Manuel Costa Morua, Otro18's leader.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies