Vietnam's Communist Party put to the test

Mr Quang A recording a protest in Hanoi last month. The activist is seeking a seat in Parliament as an independent
Mr Quang A recording a protest in Hanoi last month. The activist is seeking a seat in Parliament as an independent.PHOTO: REUTERS

Activists trying for seats in Parliament a test of party's promise to strengthen democracy

HANOI • Former IT entrepreneur and banker Nguyen Quang A is running a disciplined campaign to be elected to Vietnam's Parliament, declaring his assets, securing voter endorsements and appearing in a slick online video.

However, he is neither a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam nor the kind of candidate that the monolithic ruling party wants in its rubber-stamp legislature.

Mr Quang A is one of its biggest critics and among 19 dissidents trying to run as independents in a May election to the assembly, determined to test the sincerity of promises made by the party to strengthen democracy.

"They tell us we have rights and say the regime is democratic," he said in an interview. "Let's see them turn rhetoric into reality."

Mr Quang A is also waiting to see if party chief Nguyen Phu Trong will seek re-election to the National Assembly, so that he can go head- to-head with him for his seat.

Allowing challenges at the edges of its 40-year monopoly on power could help the image of a party that is seen as out of touch by many in a country where over half the population is under 30 years old.

However, a rigorous vetting system and other checks of candidates by the party make it almost impossible for the dissidents to succeed. Their move to seek seats in Parliament is part of a trend that began three years ago which has seen the 4.5 million-member Communist Party openly challenged not only by writers, lawyers and academics but also from among its own ranks.

The aim, Mr Quang A and other activists said, is to exploit the popularity of social media to scrutinise the party and encourage political participation from outside.

Mr Quang A, who was detained twice last year after meeting political prisoners and attending democracy seminars abroad, said independent voices in a system where there is no opposition would strengthen the party's legitimacy.

Anticipating his disqualification, the 69-year-old is making his bid as watertight as he can, seeking 5,000 voter endorsements and volunteer monitors to ensure he gets fair treatment. To set an example, he voluntarily declared on Facebook his assets, which included land and US$1.7 million (S$2.3 million) in stocks and investments using funds from an IT business he ran for 23 years. Facebook "likes" for his campaign have so far reached 3,700.

Dissent was once the domain of a tiny number in Vietnam who met behind closed doors or found themselves behind bars. The media is still censored and the party's loudest critics face harassment, arrest and jail for "anti-state propaganda".

Parliament is expecting 5 to 10 per cent of the 500 seats to go to non-party members this time. Those lawmakers are usually nominated by state institutions.

Law graduate and blogger Ngu- yen Dinh Ha, 28, expects the party to thwart his assembly bid after he gave a presentation on censorship to Congress representatives in Washington DC. "The party fears an independent is a small flame that will spread," he said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Vietnam's Communist Party put to the test'. Print Edition | Subscribe