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21 May 2011

One party on ballot as Vietnam votes

2011-05-20 14:05
Hanoi - A painting of US President Barack Obama emblazoned with the word "hope" hangs behind the desk of Le Quoc Quan, a would-be parliamentarian in Vietnam.

"I like democracy," says Quan, who attempted in vain to break the mould in the country's one-party political system by nominating himself as a candidate for national legislative elections set for Sunday.

His fate, he says, was decided not by voters but by a meeting of local members of the ruling Communist Party in his Hanoi constituency.

"They made a resolution. They had to take me out" of the running, he says, because allowing his name on the ballot would be dangerous: "I might get in."

Vietnam's authoritarian leadership ruled out an end to the one-party system and cemented its hold on power at a secretive party congress in January after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung fended off a leadership challenge.

Quan says his admiration for this year's popular uprisings that overthrew strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt was a mark against him in his attempt to run for a seat in the National Assembly.

Absolute control

So was his adherence to the minority Catholic faith, and the fact that he is not a communist.

"In Vietnam the Party controls everything," including candidates for the legislature, adds Quan, aged 39, who runs a legal services firm.

He was disbarred in 2007 when he spent 100 days in jail accused of taking part in "activities to overthrow the people's government".

About 90% of the 500 legislators to be picked on Sunday will be Party members.

Fifteen candidates are self-nominated while all the rest have been put forward by organisations such as women or veterans, said Nguyen Si Dzung, the assembly's deputy secretary general.

Candidates have been screened by the Fatherland Front, a link between the Party and the people, and approved by their neighbourhoods and workplaces.

No meaning in election

"It has some important democratic elements," Dzung said of the process.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Nguyen Phuong Nga said Sunday's elections are "a great political event for the people of Vietnam".

But Quan says people have little knowledge of the 827 candidates, who include members of the ruling Politburo.

Outside a theatre in central Hanoi a red board displays mugshots and single-page biographies of the five local National Assembly candidates, three of whom will be elected by voters.

The election "means nothing", said Do Tuan Hung, aged 62, a retired soldier who dismissed most deputies as "not independent".

Voting is compulsory in the nation of about 86 million but Nguyen Thi Hoa, aged 47, a housewife, said she is too lazy to go and usually sends her husband to cast the family's ballots.

More vocal National Assembly

"My children don't care about the elections. They just care about earning money," she said.

Yet even critics concede the National Assembly has become more vocal.

Many Vietnamese hailed their representatives last year when, in a rare move, they rejected the government's controversial $56bn proposal for a North-South bullet train.

In November Nguyen Minh Thuyet, aged 63, a communist deputy, made an unprecedented call for a legislative vote of no-confidence in the prime minister over multi-billion-dollar debts at state-run shipbuilder Vinashin.

John Hendra, outgoing United Nations chief in Vietnam, said the assembly has played more of a role in ensuring government accountability. It has also begun an "extremely important" trial of public hearings on draft laws.

"I think in the last two years we've seen a National Assembly that's become much more assertive," said Hendra.

Quan says that even though it has become more critical, the assembly remains under Party control. But he is hopeful that other parties will one day contest an election.

"Maybe it will take one year, five years, 10 years, but it will come. The communist machine cannot go forever."