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Wukan village votes for new leaders after rare rebellion

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-03-03

Residents of the Chinese village of Wukan voted Saturday for new leaders after a December rebellion against officials who they accused of stealing land. While local elections often involve one unopposed candidate, 21 competed in Wukan's poll.

AFP - A Chinese village that rebelled against corrupt Communist leaders went to the polls Saturday in a contested election seen as a landmark for those seeking more democracy in the one-party state.

The vote for the committee governing Wukan went ahead with official approval after a long campaign by local people to end what they say was years of abuse of power by their leaders.

Although village elections are common in China's rural areas, candidates are typically put forward by authorities and often run unopposed, unlike the poll in Wukan, in which 21 contenders stood for seven committee slots.

The vote came months after residents of Wukan, in the southern province of Guangdong, rose up against authorities in a bold revolt, driving out the local officials they said had been stealing their land for years.

After a tense stand-off with police in December that lasted over a week, authorities in Guangdong, which borders China's semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong, granted villagers rare concessions, including pledges to hold free polls.

A carnival atmosphere prevailed in Wukan on Saturday with mothers carrying their babies and elderly women tottering to the ballot box to cast their votes.

Villagers formed long lines outside makeshift voting booths in the playground of a local school to write up to seven names on a paper slip before placing it in a metal box.

"They've given us a democratic election, I'm so happy," villager Zhang Bingchang said as he waited to vote.

At the end of the election, organisers announced more than 6,800 people -- over 81 percent of registered voters -- went to the polls and volunteers began the arduous task of counting ballots.

They put large orange boards up against the walls of the school, and marked each vote with a small line under the name of the chosen candidate, occasionally calling for more volunteers to help out as villagers looked on.

But hours later, organisers announced only two contenders had got more than the required majority of votes, whereas regulations stipulate at least three candidates must have achieved the required amount of votes to be elected.

Only the two contenders who achieved this secured their place, including Lin Zuluan, a villager named provisional head of Wukan after the incumbent was driven out. Lin was elected head of the committee.

Villagers will vote again on Sunday to fill the remaining five seats, in a second round of elections.

Some analysts say the handling of the Wukan incident could be a model for how the government can manage local disputes.

But others have dismissed the outcome as a one-off which occurred at a time Guangdong's head Wang Yang is seeking to raise his profile, as he jockeys to ascend to China's top decision-making body.

Protests over land grabs in other parts of China, including one in the eastern province of Zhejiang last month, have been meet with detentions of villagers and crackdowns on contacting the media.

Villagers in China are by law allowed to vote for a committee to represent them, but many complain of fraud and lack of competition in polls that are often manipulated.

Wukan's leaders had held power for decades without being challenged, and residents say they never allowed village polls to go ahead openly, instead selecting members behind closed doors.

"It's my first time voting and I don't understand the whole process of elections. But I hope they (those elected) will make efforts to sort out the land issue and corruption," said voter Huang Delian.

To illustrate the open nature of the polls, organisers showed an empty ballot box to residents before voting began to allay any rigging concerns and pledged "fairness and transparency" through loudspeakers.

Wukan's unexpectedly successful revolt was triggered when community leader Xue Jinbo died in police custody following months of tensions over land grabs.

Organisers of the election announced late on Saturday that Xue's daughter Xue Jianwan, who was one of the candidates running for the position of deputy head of the committee, had pulled out of the race, without giving reasons.

Despite allowing the elections to go ahead, the authorities still kept a watchful eye on proceedings, and police cars patrolled the village.

Even though the election has not received widespread coverage from China's state media it has created a stir, with petitioners from other parts of the country travelling to Wukan in a bid to highlight their own grievances.

Date created : 2012-03-03

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