HAVANA Cuba called municipal elections on Monday for October 21, the start of a voting process that could clarify by early next year whether convalescing Fidel Castro will continue as head of state.
A decree signed by acting President Raul Castro set the date for elections that will renew municipal and provincial assemblies and, in turn, the National Assembly, which picks the Council of State and the president of Cuba every five years.
Fidel Castro has held the post since the current political system was set up 30 years ago.
For the first time since his 1959 revolution, the 80-year-old leader was forced to hand over power temporarily to his brother last July after undergoing intestinal surgery.
He has not appeared in public since, though he has recovered weight and returned to public life by writing columns from his hospital room and receiving foreign dignitaries.
"The big question is whether Fidel Castro will preside the Council of State," said a European ambassador. "There are people in government saying he is too old."
Castro did not attend the June funeral of Vilma Espin, Raul Castro's wife and one of the most powerful women in Cuba's political system, a sign that he may be too weak to resume governing in anything other than an advisory capacity.
Western diplomats says Raul Castro is firmly in control of the communist state, running day-to-day government, and could formally become president next year. Fidel Castro is expected to retain the powerful position of first secretary of the ruling Communist Party.
"The Council of State calls general municipal elections to choose the delegates to the Municipal and Provincial Assemblies and the deputies of the National Assembly of the People's Power," said the decree read on Cuban television news.
Cuba is a one-party state. Candidates to the assemblies do not have to be card-holding members of the Communist Party, but they usually are.
The 603-seat National Assembly is a rubber-stamp parliament which meets only twice a year for a day or so. Its members include Cuba's only cosmonaut, its most famous folk singer, its most successful painter and the country's TV weatherman.