Drenched voters in the Chinese village of Wukan, which held landmark democratic elections after rebelling against Communist officials, went back 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.
Protest leaders swept to power in landmark elections months later, and another poll was held Monday in torrential rain to elect a new seven-member village committee.
But the conditions lowered turnout, as did a sense of disillusionment with the lack of progress in recovering land following the previous ballot.
The recent arrests of several former protest leaders, and a heavy government presence at the polling station in a school, raised suspicions that the election is under pressure from higher-level authorities.
"After years, we still haven't got our land back," said one silver-haired man, who like several others declined to give his name.
"The Communist Party branch office is more powerful than the village committee," he added. "If an official wants to arrest a farmer, they can."
Many residents of Wukan, a fishing village where locals said around 430 hectares (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 ground.
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.
- Protest leaders detained -
The mood at the polling station -- where there was a moderate police presence, including armed officers -- was muted and sombre.
Dozens of mostly male government employees from outside the village had flooded the school, wearing signs saying "worker" and "Donghai Election Commission".
"We are here because the government organised it," said one surnamed Ceng, referring to the authorities of Lufeng City, which administers Wukan.
Several voters told AFP that they felt the atmosphere surrounding the vote was markedly different than last time.
"I feel the election isn't as open as before," a middle-aged man surnamed Zong, who runs a meat and noodle restaurant, said after casting his ballot. "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.
"I can't talk to media; it's not the same as before," one man wearing a plaid shirt said as he left the polling site.
The 2012 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 multiparty 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 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.
- 'The results can be faked' -
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 morning, 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, a researcher who studied Wukan's uprising and runs a think-tank in Beijing that looks at legal and rural issues.
"The local government has tried to discredit the first group of leaders," he added. "There is not the same monitoring as before, so the villagers worry that the results can be faked."
A driver surnamed Wu told AFP he voted for Yang Semao. "Are the elections fair?" he asked. "It's too early to say. We will have to wait until the results are read."