Western observers find much to fault in village elections
JASPER BECKER in Beijing
Observers from America's Carter Centre for Democracy returned from monitoring elections at two mainland villages impressed by the high turnout and the authorities' openness - but little else.
After visiting Dazu county, near Chongqing, Sichuan province, where peasants elected a party secretary to represent them in the local people's congress, the observers said: 'There is an increasing acceptance at all levels in China's countryside that these local elections should be competitive.' But the team, led by Charles Castello, director of the centre's democracy programme, and Dr Robert Pastor, professor of political science at Georgia's Emory University, also found problems.
'In the direct elections, local organisers showed a weak conceptual grasp of the most critical elements,' said their report. 'We saw only limited choice, both in substance and procedure, in the other elements of selecting township officials.' Candidates' names were only made public the day before polling even though they were selected by the party committee six months earlier. They only gave token speeches, some as short as 30 seconds. Very few people chose to cast their ballots in secret and many proxy votes were lodged by people who did not show documentation.
Irregularities were discovered in nearly all election-day procedures. For most positions, there was only one candidate who emerged from the group consultation process.
Dr Pastor said: 'It left a lot to be desired. The level of competition, as we define it, was limited.' Mainland and Western leaders, including US President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, have cited earlier reports by the centre to bolster arguments that vast changes are under way in China.
History professor Merle Goldman said inviting the centre, named after former US president Jimmy Carter, to witness elections provided good publicity for Beijing during its crackdown against democracy activists.
But she added: 'It works both ways. In one village I went to, there was a protest and some members of a panel passed me votes of complaint. This is not a democracy, but giving villagers any choice is unprecedented in Chinese history.' The observers said they made recommendations on improving procedures to senior party figures which, they were told, would be seriously considered.
The group, which was the first international team to observe elections at such a level, met with Zou Jiahua, Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.