Phantoms of village voting

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am

'Cheats beware!' That's the message that will go out to candidates for 1,480 village posts in next spring's rural elections. It's a message that should be heeded because police, the ICAC and the Registration and Electoral Office will all be watching closely how the polls are conducted.

In particular, they will be looking for ghost voters; in the past, spectres who didn't live in villages have miraculously cast ballots that determined the outcome of elections.

The village representative elections will be held over five weekends in January and February. There will be ballots for 707 villages - some of them uninhabited. In 693 settlements, there will be polls to pick residential representatives who live there. In 601 villages, there will also be ballots to select representatives of native sons.

The complex arrangements were agonisingly hammered out before the 2004 village elections so indigenous villagers could retain control of traditional and ancestral customs in their native settlements. On their special electoral rolls, villagers can vote only if their ancestors inhabited the settlement when the British signed the lease for the New Territories in 1898. Many of these voters do not live in the villages. This is no problem: the indigenous representative deals only with clan and traditional affairs.

The residential representative is picked by all registered voters who live in the village. But here comes the crunch that caused so many problems in the 2004 elections: many indigenous villagers who lived elsewhere stubbornly pretended that their regular home was in their native settlement.

This gave clansmen a huge edge in the balloting - even in villages where outsiders plainly outnumber native sons.

To try to persuade indigenous villagers to obey the law, Home Affairs officials have for months been looking at ways to make sure the elections are held fairly, openly and honestly. Brochures have been printed by both the Electoral Affairs Commission and the Independent Commission Against Corruption to warn candidates about the rules.

Every residential voter is warned on their registration form that they break the law if they do not live full-time in their village. When the poll lists are printed next month, they will be open for public inspection. Anyone can make a complaint if the list discloses ghost voters.

The election system is an honest but awkward attempt to graft a semblance of justice and honesty on to an old colonial legacy. When the British occupied the New Territories, they needed some way of communicating with the rural communities.

The answer was to deal with clan elders selected by the villagers.

This worked well as long as the communities were all neatly organised family structures. But in the 1950s and 1960s there was mass migration to urban areas and overseas, and the 1970s saw waves of outsiders moving in. In many places, by the 1990s, outsiders were a large majority.

But they had no voice and no vote. So the 'dual head' system was introduced in 2004, against often-violent protests of some insular native sons.

Officials are determined that the second village elections under this system will be more honest than the first experience. To help ensure this, people convicted of being ghost voters face up to six months in jail.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories