SCMP Aug 25, 2010

Villagers on the run after row over election


At least 13 villagers - including three members of an election supervising body - have been detained and others are on the run almost a month after a dispute over the election of the village chief of Raolefu, a rural area on the outskirts of Beijing.

The trouble occurred on the evening of July 27 when villagers waiting for the result noticed that 51 ballots were missing in the final count of the election battle between challenger Song Jianzhong , who needed just five more votes to beat incumbent village chief and Communist Party secretary Wei Jiandong . 

The villagers demanded a recount but Wei said no and ordered police to remove the ballot boxes. About 500 angry villagers blocked the doors until the next day. Local election officials promised to give an explanation, but it never came.

The stand-off ended around 2pm the next day when more than 200 regular police and riot police arrived to remove the ballot boxes. During the incident, four villagers were detained, allegedly for blocking a highway, an accusation the villagers deny.

Under mainland law, direct elections are held only for village leaders and local people's congresses. Other elections - for sending deputies to the legislature or the next level - are done by the people's congresses, which are controlled by the party.

In the ensuing weeks, nine more villagers were detained, including three election committee members and a villager who were taken away yesterday.

Liu Jinfu , chairman of the election committee, was among those detained yesterday. Liu called Wei a liar and said the election committee was blocked by Wei and the police from verifying the ballots. Another villager, Ma Huimei , was taken away last Thursday. 

The committee was formed by village representatives to supervise the election process, as required by law.

Song has not been seen since the incident and is believed to be in hiding.

A spokesman for the Fangshan district government quoted police as saying that Ma had been detained for disturbing public order.

Anger was still seething on the village streets last week, with dozens of residents milling around, complaining about the election and accusing Wei of being corrupt and having bought votes. A recording being played on a large speaker on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle cart loudly and repeatedly denounced the cancellation of the election. 

One woman broke into tears as she described how a friend was detained by police. 'He didn't have his glasses or shoes when he was taken away,' she said, wiping her tears with a white towel.

During an interview with the South China Morning Post, Wei angrily denied accusations that he rigged the election, was involved in corruption or had bought votes.

He first denied ordering police to seize the ballot boxes, but later said he had. 'I was the one who ordered the police to seize the ballot boxes,' he shouted, as villagers stood up to denounce him. 'I have the authority to do this.

'The people wanted to take the ballots, so we needed the police to protect them.' 

Li Xiongbing , a prominent human rights lawyer defending several of the detained villagers, said Wei acted without authority.

'According to the election law, he had no right to order the police to seize the ballots,' Li said. 'The election commissioner is the only one who can do that.'