WUKAN, China: The Chinese village of Wukan won the right to free elections by confronting local Communist officials but has become an example of how the ruling party uses ballots as a safety valve to stave off unrest while refusing to share real power, analysts say.
Farmers in the fishing village in Guangdong province united in 2011 to expel Communist Party leaders who they accused of illegally selling hundreds of hectares (acres) of land for profit.
Thousands of similar disputes are estimated to erupt across China each year, and are often violently repressed.
But after the death of a protester prompted huge rallies that made headlines worldwide, local authorities granted Wukan free elections, in what was seen as a model for democratic reform in the one-party ruled state.
The village committee's failure to recover all the land has undermined residents' faith in elections, but the people of Wukan returned to the polls this week, hunching inside cabinets marked "secret voting box" before slipping ballot papers into sealed containers at a primary school athletics field, in scenes familiar to residents of democratic countries.
Unlike the previous election, though, none of the candidates for the seven member village committee made speeches.
Dozens of workers sent by the city of Lufeng, which administers Wukan, were present around the polling station, while two outspoken candidates were detained on corruption charges just weeks earlier.
After polls closed, just a few dozen voters endured torrential rains to hear that former protest leader Lin Zuluan had been re-elected as village chief.
Residents alleged that Lufeng authorities were backing Lin, and weeks before the election they had charged Yang Semao, a member of the original protesters with a reputation for being more outspoken than the mild-mannered Lin, with accepting bribes.
'Cannot accept complete democracy'
"The election was less transparent this time, in particular with respect to the vote counting," said Xiong Wei, an academic who helped design Wukan's voting booths and has advised village residents on the election.
"The local government wants to control the election, and make sure that Lin Zuluan would be re-elected," he said, adding: "If Yang Semao hadn't been suddenly arrested, and had a chance to make a speech, then it's possible he could have been elected as village chief."
Yang dropped out of a run-off ballot this week despite garnering thousands of votes in the first round, and sitting in his simple white-tiled home, he told AFP that local authorities "still cannot accept complete democracy, because they fear that disobedient people might be chosen".
Many villagers say the elections were a clear improvement on the decades of uninterrupted rule by a single party official - who was prosecuted for corruption after the 2011 uprising.
"The village has seen some progress," Yang said. "The local government has been forced to accept some democracy."
Lin defended his non-confrontational approach, saying that without the support of higher authorities, "I've seen that villages can struggle even to find food to eat."
But signs that outsiders are profiting from the allegedly illegal land sales are still evident.
A few minutes walk from the polling station, on land which Lin says was illegally seized, a new hotel stands next to a row of neo-classical buildings, home to a shop selling wine imported from France at more than 1,000 yuan ($160) a bottle.
"Our boss is from Lufeng city, and he brings customers here to buy," said a female assistant, polishing wine glasses hanging above a marble-topped bar.
"Otherwise, no one would come to such a remote place."
Residents of poverty-stricken Wukan, who mostly leave the village to find low-paid work in factories, are more partial to cheap grain alcohol than European wine, she added.
The Communist Party has permitted elections in China's villages for decades, although it often vets candidates, and so far more than three million local officials are estimated to have been chosen by public ballot.
Elections are favoured as safety valve against unrest, according to analysts.
"It helps people feel a little more that they have some power," said Kerry Brown, director of the University of Sydney's Chinese studies centre, who has written a book on village elections.
The democratic imperfections seen in Wukan's vote are the norm across China, he said, with authorities jockeying for control of land sales, a major source of government revenue.
"In the last few years village elections have been much more controlled because the powers have actually started to kind of matter," he added.
Plans to expand elections beyond the village level appear to have been shelved more than a decade ago, under then president Hu Jintao.
"You could see enthusiasm for this project basically disappearing, replaced with an obsession with stability and being able to completely control the outcome," Brown said.
China's current president Xi Jinping said on a visit to Germany this week that the country had experimented with parliamentary and multi-party systems in the past, but "none of them worked".
"Finally," he said, "China took on the path of socialism." -AFP