Vietnam’s Communist Party is holding elections for the country’s National Assembly today, a contest traditionally heralded as a symbol of openness without bringing policy changes in the one-party state.
Results in the vote last held in 2007, which may involve as many as 500 seats, will probably be available within a week, Pham Minh Tuyen, general secretary of the National Election Council, said by telephone. The Communist Party has ruled the country of 87 million people since it was reunified after the American-backed government of South Vietnam was defeated in a war in 1975.
“The Vietnamese government feels compelled to call their system democratic and to hold elections to try to tell the rest of the world that their version of democracy is just different from others,” Raymond Burghardt, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and now director of seminars at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said in a telephone interview. “But the essence of this political system is that no alternative centers of power will be permitted to emerge.”
Included among the 827 contestants for positions as National Assembly deputies are 117 non-members of the Communist Party as well as 15 self-nominated candidates, according to a government election website.
Entrepreneurs including Dang Thanh Tam, chairman of Kinh Bac City Development Share Holding Corp. (KBC) and one of the country’s richest people, will also participate. The majority of candidates are nominated by Party-controlled institutions.
The National Assembly last year rejected a proposed $56 billion high-speed rail line that had government backing and a small group of deputies called for a confidence vote on Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, which was never held.
“The National Assembly does have more of a role than it used to, and you get a certain amount of frank discussion there,” Burghardt said.
In the 2007 election, 10 percent of those elected were non- party members, and one was self-nominated, according to Edmund Malesky, an assistant professor at the University of California in San Diego who specializes in studying Vietnamese politics. Still, all candidates must pass through a Party vetting process to make it onto the ballot, he said.
“This is certainly not going to be an election that you would see in a Western parliamentary system but there is a certain amount of competition that’s allowed because it’s useful for Party leaders,” he said.
While the Vietnamese system is characterized by very low levels of citizen participation and of government accountability, there is also minimal risk of political instability similar to that seen recently in North Africa and the Middle East, Moody’s Investors Service said in April.
Vietnam’s political stability is a result of rising wealth, employment prospects and increasing economic openness, according to Moody’s, which said that leadership transitions in the country are conducted largely behind closed doors.
The country’s economy has averaged 7 percent growth over the past decade, and per-capita income has more than quadrupled since the mid-1990s. Vietnam concluded a trade agreement with the U.S. in 2001 that has led to a 14-fold jump in American- bound shipments within a decade, and the country joined the World Trade Organization in 2007.
Still, the country’s economy is faced with the fastest inflation in more than two years, and with foreign exchange reserves that declined 46 percent between the end of 2008 and the end of 2010, according to the World Bank.
“We need people who are good at economic issues,” said 78-year-old Dam Trung Don, in an interview after voting in Hanoi today.
--Jason Folkmanis in Ho Chi Minh City. Editors: Patrick Harrington, Paul Tighe
To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Folkmanis in Ho Chi Minh City at firstname.lastname@example.org