( dpa ) - Cubans are set to vote on Sunday for new members of their National Assembly, Cuba's unicameral congress.
The communist island's new leaders will be coming to power at a time marked by key uncertainties: Fidel Castro, Cuba's leader for almost half a century, is a candidate, but it is unknown whether he will stay in the race to the end to become head of state once again.
Castro, 81, "temporarily" gave up power to his brother Raul in July 2006, in order to undergo surgery for an intestinal problem. He has not returned to power or been seen in public since, and Fidel Castro himself admitted this week that he lacks the "physical ability" necessary to appear in public.
This was just the most recent in a series of messages over the past few weeks. Castro said among other things that he does not intend to "cling" to power, leading some analysts to venture that historic change is afoot in the Cuban government. For the first time, they surmise, Fidel Castro may not lead Cuba but could instead serve in an "honorary" position.
Other observers, however, note that nothing in the comments of the "commander in chief" signals a commitment against serving again as head of state. And the possibility is by no means remote. Once elected a member of the National Assembly, Castro can aspire to join the Council of State, whose president holds the highest positions in the country.
One of Fidel Castro's best-known quotes is that "a revolutionary never retires," and he said in late December that "one should be consequent till the end." Raul Castro, in turn, has said that Fidel's candidacy was backed by the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party.
Dissident Martha Beatriz Roque says she does not have "the slightest doubt" that Castro will again be Cuban president. Behind the crossfire of messages, she noted, there is a clear strategy.
"Castro wants to be humble so that Raul comes along later and says that it is the people, the party, who have decided that they want Fidel to remain president," she said.
Brian Latell, a US citizen, former CIA analyst and author of the book After Fidel, says instead that "it seems all but certain that, voluntarily or not, he'll vacate the Cuban presidency early this year, though he may symbolically hold onto some new, wholly honorific title."
His favoured candidate for the presidency is current vice president Carlos Lage, who he says is "widely considered an advocate of economic reform" such as that favoured by Raul Castro, Latell said in an article in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
However, for lack of concrete comments from Fidel Castro on his political future, all will be proven right or wrong several weeks after Sunday's election.
Cuban legislation establishes a maximum period of 45 days for the National Assembly to hold its first meeting after the vote. In its first session, members of the Council of State will be elected, and the role Fidel Castro envisages for himself will presumably emerge.
For now, over 8 million Cubans over the age of 16 are expected to elect their legislators on Sunday, along with the members of the country's provincial legislatures.
Cuban authorities, led by the convalescent Castro, have called upon citizens to exercise the "united vote" formula that allows them to approve all candidates on the ballot by crossing just one box. This formula is tacitly understood as a show of support for the government.
"I am a determined supporter of the united vote. It was that which allowed us to avoid the tendency to copy what was coming from the countries of the old socialist camp," the ailing Castro said in a letter that was recently read out on national television.
The "voto unido" was proposed by Castro himself in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, in order to show the "unity" of the Cuban people at times of a deep economic and political crisis on the island.
Cubans will go to the polls to elect 614 new legislators from a list with the same number of candidates.
Cuban authorities argue that this system - in which each candidate could technically fail to obtain half the votes plus one and could thus be rejected - allows lesser-known candidates the same chance as more "famous" ones, like Fidel and Raul Castro or Lage.
Critics, in turn, complain that this is no election at all, because "everything has been chosen in advance."