The politics of protest in Vietnam: Gatecrashers

Nguyen Quang A writes a comment on Facebook while sitting at a cafe after an interview in Hanoi, Vietnam

Nguyen Quang A writes a comment on Facebook while sitting at a cafe after an interview in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

HANOI – THE ECONOMIST (March 19, 2016): By running for parliament, political outsiders challenge one-party rule

Rogue candidates have little chance of surviving into May. Yet it will be hard for the Communist Party to silence them entirely, mainly because of their prominence in social media (The Economist)

ONE of Vietnam’s political gadflies, Nguyen Quang A, posted a letter this week to the chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly. Mr Quang A wrote that he had collected 5,000 signatures from among the public, including from famous writers, senior Communist Party officials and a retired general, and that he was now putting himself forward as a candidate for the rubber-stamp parliament. The odds of his bid succeeding, Mr Quang A acknowledges, are “nearly zero”. The assembly has a candidate-vetting process known as the “five gates” to keep out undesirables like him who “self-nominate”. Still, he is happy that his protest candidacy is a rare challenge to the party.

Vietnam’s constitution pays lip service to democratic principles, but the country of 93m people is a repressive one-party state. In it, ordinary folk have little say over who their leaders are. Almost every top official in Vietnam is a Communist Party member. Since 2002 a few hundred Vietnamese have nominated themselves for the National Assembly, but only seven have been successful—and nearly all of those had deep ties to the party powerful in politics or business. Nguyen Dinh Cong, a retired university lecturer who quit the party last month in disgust over its jailing of dissidents, its stuffy Marxism-Leninism and its refusal to allow multi-party elections, says that polls in Vietnam are “just for show”.

Yet this year’s self-nominating candidates, with a deadline this week to register for a parliamentary election scheduled to take place in late May, are testing the limits like never before. Nearly 100 candidates have put themselves forward from Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub, alone. Some 15 of these are, like Mr Quang A, outspoken democracy activists. They include a former executive at a state-owned broadcaster and the vice-chair of an independent if unofficial journalists’ association. Other self-nominators, though not dissidents, are far removed from the party top brass. For instance, Mai Khoi, a pop singer from Ho Chi Minh City, is campaigning, including on Facebook, as a would-be parliamentary voice for Vietnam’s woefully underrepresented youth.

Rogue candidates have little chance of surviving into May. Yet it will be hard for the Communist Party to silence them entirely, mainly because of their prominence in social media; Mr Quang A, for one, has over 22,000 followers on Facebook, which in Vietnam is not blocked as it is in neighbouring China. Their supporters, too, are increasingly willing to challenge officialdom, as happened last year when a campaign on Facebook managed to halt a municipal effort to chop down thousands of Hanoi’s trees.

What is more, barring protest candidates from running for the National Assembly may have the effect of earning them an audience with Barack Obama, when the American leader visits Vietnam in May to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-led trade pact that was signed in February but faces Congressional resistance. He would probably love to be seen meeting some of the authoritarian regime’s most outspoken critics.

Source: The Economist

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