WUKAN: Rain-drenched voters in a Chinese village which rebelled against Communist officials and held landmark democratic elections returned to the polls Monday in a ballot clouded by signs authorities are reasserting their power.
Wukan, in south China's Guangdong province, grabbed headlines worldwide in 2011 when locals staged huge protests and drove out Communist Party officials they accused of illegal land grabs and the death of a detained local villager.
Protest leaders swept to power in free elections months later, and a poll to choose a new seven-member village committee was held Monday amid torrential downpours.
But fewer than 1,000 locals were seen by AFP casting their ballots before polls closed on Monday afternoon, a marked contrast with the excited thousands who turned out for the village's previous exercise in democracy.
Nonetheless an announcer said 8,000 ballot papers had been claimed at the polling station, out of an electorate of more than 9,000.
Staff declined to explain the apparent discrepancy.
Officials from the nearby city government packed the area around the polling station, stoking suspicions that the election was under pressure from higher-level authorities just weeks after the detention of several former protest leaders.
Many residents of Wukan, a fishing village where locals said around 1,060 acres of land had been illegally seized and sold, have become disappointed with the committee leaders elected in 2012, after they failed to reverse much of the losses.
State-backed land-grabs are a key driver of unrest in rural China, fuelling the majority of the tens of thousands of protests taking place in the countryside each year, according to estimates.
Several villagers said they would not vote at all.
"You can see all these people the government has sent here, they want to put pressure on us," a middle aged man surnamed Sun said, as he sipped from a cup of green tea.
"The result has been decided in advance. So I didn't vote."
There was a muted and sombre atmosphere as voters dodged puddles at the polling station in a school, where dozens of government employees had been bussed in from outside the village.
"We are here because the government organised us to come," said one surnamed Ceng, referring to the authorities of Lufeng City, which administers Wukan.
Voters told AFP the ballot was being run on a write-in system, rather than with boxes to be ticked, and several voters said they felt the atmosphere was markedly different than 2012.
"I feel the election isn't as open as before," said a middle-aged man surnamed Zong. "There were not even half as many government staff last time.
"They will not count the votes in public. The voting forms will be taken somewhere we can't see them to fix the result."
Many declined to comment or give their names at all in the presence of the local government workers.
"I can't talk to media, it's not the same as before," said one man as he left the polling site.
The previous elections in Wukan were seen as unprecedented in their openness, with candidates not vetted by the Communist party, a group of ordinary villagers overseeing the process, and votes cast by secret ballot.
Some commentators hailed them as a model for democratic reforms in the country, where the ruling Communist Party does not tolerate organised opposition or multiple party elections.
But two of the village committee's most senior members, former protest firebrands Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao, were detained on corruption charges this month by prosecutors in Lufeng.
Another committee member, Zhuang Liehong, fled to the United States to seek asylum earlier this year, in what he said was an attempt to avoid arrest.
Reports last week also said that Xue Yubao, a member of the Communist Party branch originally ousted by the protesters had been reappointed, adding to fears that local authorities are reasserting their power.
"It's very clear that the authorities just want to control the situation in Wukan," Zhuang told AFP from his new home in the US.
One middle aged local government worker, who declined to be identified, said the official presence was justified because "there was trouble here a few years ago."
Villages across China have been allowed to hold elections for decades, but they often take place behind closed doors, and are subject to widespread interference by local communist officials.
But officials did not allow AFP to see a ballot paper on Monday, and analysts said it was unlikely the elections would be as open.
"The old protest leaders are likely to fail, because they are still in prison or under investigation," said Xiong Wei, who runs a think-tank in Beijing that looks at legal and rural issues.
"There is not the same monitoring as before, so the villagers worry that the results can be faked," he added.
Voters placed their ballots in metal boxes, which were opened in public and taken behind closed doors for counting.
A driver surnamed Wu told AFP he voted for former protester Yang Semao. "Are the elections fair?" he asked. "It's too early to say. We will have to wait until the results are read."
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