Vietnamese citizens cast their votes on Sunday in legislative elections that the country’s communist rulers are seeking to portray as an example of growing public participation in the nation’s political life.
The poll – which saw about 876 candidates, nearly all of whom are Communist party members, vying for 500 seats – came against the backdrop of an intensifying debate within the party over how to manage the political and social implications of Vietnam’s accelerating economic reforms and integration into the global economy.
“Within the party, they are engaged in a very thorough and fundamental debate about the future of Vietnam,” said Jonathan Pincus, chief economist in Hanoi for the United Nations Development Programme.
“There are critical and important discussions going on about the rule of law, the role of the state in the economy and society, and the relationship between the citizens and the state.”
But the election of delegates for the national assembly reflects the tight control Vietnam’s communist rulers still exert over political life, and the strictures on what passes for public political participation. The Communist party selected most of the candidates for the assembly from among its ranks.
Only 30 of more than 130 “self-nominated” candidates received the required clearance to stand from their colleagues, neighbours and the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, the country’s umbrella social group.
Vo Van Kiet, former prime minister, called the screening process “too restrictive”. A teacher acclaimed for exposing cheating schemes for national placement exams failed to win the support of his colleagues, keeping him off the ballot.
The candidates offered no platforms. The results are to be announced in the coming days.
Despite the restrictive electoral process, the assembly – which has a five-year term – has evolved from being a mere rubber stamp for government policies into a forum for often feisty debate. Ministers can be summoned for questioning by the assembly, with the sessions broadcast live on television.
“Some ministers have really had trouble, with hard questions,” said a Hanoi-based western diplomat.
But in recent weeks, Hanoi has demonstrated limited tolerance for public discussion, imprisoning six social activists who backed a petition calling for multi-party democracy. In March, a dissident priest was sentenced to eight years in prison for trying to establish a political party and for encouraging a boycott of the national assembly elections.
“There are limits to which the party will accept dissent and those limits are around the question of the role of the party in the Vietnamese polity,” said Mr Pincus. “People and organisations who question the role of the party have been, and will continue to be, dealt with quite harshly.”
Increasingly, citizens are directing their complaints about government policy to their NLA representatives though their ability to respond is hampered by the fact 75 per cent of members have other full-time jobs.
“The national assembly is important. It is not by any stretch of the imagination just for show,” said Mr Pincus. “The problem is, they do not have the staff or capacity to deal with all of this public expectations of what the national assembly can and will do.