Cuba’s political opposition has accused the government of blocking or deterring its candidates in Sunday’s local elections, and is calling on Cubans to abstain from voting.

Municipal elections, held every five years, are one of the few opportunities for ordinary citizens on the island to participate directly in the electoral process.

The Cuban government says the system is a model of grassroots democracy, where participants in local assemblies nominate candidates from their own neighborhood and then vote for them freely.

Secretary of State Bruno Rodriguez tweeted on Thursday that the upcoming vote was “a true expression of our participatory democracy”.

But the country’s opposition has eroded since the anti-government protests July last year led to hundreds are tried and jailed for crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to vandalism and sedition.

Some have chosen to migrate, while others say they were forced into exile. Those who remain say the government’s response has had a chilling effect on dissent.

“This clearly affects the ability of civil society to join what I consider to be the majority of citizens seeking change,” said Manuel Cuesta Morua, a leader of the Cuban Council for Democratic Transition. in Cuba, this week against Reuters news agency. .

He said Cuba’s state security prevented three opposition candidates with the best prospects of winning from participating in their respective meetings.

The activist said he was aware of only one opposition candidate — a 30-year-old bread maker named Jose Antonio Cabrera from Palma Soriano, a small town in eastern Cuba — out of more than 26,000 nominees.

The government has not responded to a request for comment on Cuesta Morua’s allegations. Reuters was unable to independently verify its claims.

Yuliesky Amador, a law professor at Cuba’s University of Artemisa, told Reuters that “any Cuban citizen can be nominated.”

“The people nominate [the candidates]and having anti-government beliefs is not a hindrance,” he said, adding that any other situation would violate the Cuban constitution and laws.

There are 26,746 candidates for 12,427 ward positions in Sunday’s elections, in a country of 11 million people. Campaigning is banned in Cuba, and candidates for the ward posts are nominated at neighborhood meetings based on personal merit, not policy positions.

They don’t have to belong to the communist party. Some candidates are independent, but only a few government opponents have ever run. Cuba has long viewed opposition activity as subversive and says it is funded outside the island fuel unrest.

Cuban leaders say the country’s elections are more democratic than Western models, which they say are dominated by big business and corruption.

Reuters interviewed five prominent opposition activists who remained in Cuba by telephone. None of them said they had any plans to run in Sunday’s elections, nor did they know of any opposition candidates who had been nominated.

“This is all a farce,” Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, told Reuters by telephone. “I don’t believe in the electoral system in Cuba.”

Many activists have instead called on Cubans to abstain from voting.

Opposition group Archipielago, whose members mainly live outside Cuba, has called on voters to stay at home, spoil their ballots or leave them blank.

“This could be a great opportunity to say loudly to the regime and to the international community that the dictatorship no longer has the majorities it boasted for decades,” Archipielago said in early November.

Abstinence has been increasing in recent years.

Cuba’s 1976 constitution was approved by 98 percent of voters, with a turnout of more than 98 percent. the 2019 Constitution was approved by nearly 87 percent of voters, with turnout dropping to 90 percent.

The referendum in September on the government-backed Cuban family law saw 67 percent approval. Turnout fell to 74 percent, high by international standards, but an unprecedented low in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959.

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