• Number of approved self-nominees at lowest level since 1997
  • Vietnamese to elect 500 new lawmakers in Sunday vote

Vietnam’s Communist Party has approved the lowest number of independent candidates for National Assembly elections in nearly 20 years, at a time of rising frustration with the one-party political system.

While 162 people initially nominated themselves to stand for parliament, only 11 made it through a short-listing process held by a party body known as the Fatherland Front, to the final list of 870 vying for 500 seats.

The number of “self-nominees” who passed vetting is the lowest since 1997, when the first independent candidates were elected to parliament. They will contest the election on Sunday, where all citizens over 18 can vote.

The election is being held against a backdrop of rising dissent, said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. In recent weeks thousands of Vietnamese have taken to the streets in rare protests over the death of millions of fish near a steel plant in central Vietnam that’s a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered an investigation into how the steel plant received approval to pipe waste water directly into the sea.

While initial protests on May 1 occurred without disruption, a further round on May 8 was broken up by police who arrested hundreds of people. Police also stymied planned protests on May 15: Access to Facebook and other social media pages was patchy that day, and only small groups managed to turn out.

‘General Tightening’

“It’s a general tightening up,” Thayer said. “Society has become more diverse and vocal. That makes it harder for the government to control it.”

The parliamentary vote comes as the new leadership deals with challenges, including the possibility of missing this year’s growth target, and a crippling drought. Authorities are eager to retain control via the parliament, which in theory could act independently, Thayer said. Ninety percent of lawmakers will probably be party members and the rest non-party people who are approved by the system, he said.

Self-nominees have always accounted for less than 1 percent of the assembly, with the largest number -- four lawmakers -- elected in the last election in 2011. The country will intensify security and watch for “hostile and reactionary forces” to prevent them from damaging the vote, according to a May 18 statement on the National Assembly’s website.

‘More Receptive’

The fact that more people sought to run as independent candidates is a sign of improved democracy, said Nguyen Hong Hai, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies. “However, authorities are still holding prejudice against those having opposing views,” Hai said, noting there were about 30 civil society activists among the initial group of self-nominees.

The number of self-nominations shows “people are very interested in the National Assembly and want to contribute and participate in this forum,” and these are “very welcome,” Nguyen Hanh Phuc, general secretary of the National Assembly, said in a briefing last month. Still, nominees have to meet the criteria to become a candidate, he said, going through several rounds of consultation in what is “a very tight” process.

Eliminated Nominees

Nguyen Quang A, a prominent intellectual, was eliminated during the vetting process. News that Tran Dang Tuan, general director of An Vien Production Corp. and former deputy head of Vietnam Television, was eliminated in the last consultation round after receiving 100 percent confidence votes at his residence and workplace, was widely covered by local media.

Nguyen Huu Ninh, chairman of the Center for Environment Research, Education and Development, and Nguyen Anh Tri, head and party chief at the National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, are two self-nominees in Hanoi who made it to the final list.

“I hope to raise my voice and share my view on the very topical subject of environment and climate change,” Ninh said. If unsuccessful he will continue to contribute as a scientist in the field, he said. “I feel relaxed ahead of the election as I’m not under any pressure.”

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