HANOI (REUTERS) - Fewer independent candidates than before are standing in an election in Vietnam on Sunday (May 23) to a largely rubber-stamp legislature that is dominated by the Communist Party but which has taken on a growing role in discussing social issues.
Despite increasing openness to social change and a plethora of free trade deals, the party - one of the last ruling communist parties in the world - retains tight control over Vietnam and its media, and tolerates little dissent.
Some 92 per cent of candidates standing for the 500-seat National Assembly are party members.
Of the 868 candidates, 74 are independents, down from the 97 in the previous elections in 2016, while local media say the number of assembly deputies who were not party members halved over the last three elections.
Independents must be vetted by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, which the party essentially controls.
Still, the country's legislature occasionally rejects proposals from the party-dominated government.
"While historically the National Assembly largely played a confirmatory role, it has asserted itself more frequently in recent years and provided a more critical policy review of the government's legislative proposals," said a Vietnam-based analyst who asked not to be named, citing the sensitive nature of discussing Hanoi politics.
Candidates include most of the party's decision-making politburo and all 180 members of its Central Committee, including party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, the oldest candidate at 77.
The legislature has become a more open forum for discussion.
In 2014, it lifted a ban on same-sex marriages, paving the way for gay and lesbian couples in Vietnam to hold relationship ceremonies - but not officially recognised marriages.
It also votes on the performance of its highest-ranking members. Officials who score badly are offered the option to resign, although most do not.
Despite the party's decades of firm control, its government portrays itself as embattled in the elections, which are held every five years.
"As election day nears, hostile forces and political opportunists have increased their propaganda, abusing democracy and human rights to combat the election," Security Ministry spokesman To An Xo said in a statement this week, adding that there were conspiracies to "undermine the party and the state".
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, which handles enquiries from international media, did not respond to a request from Reuters for comment on what hostile forces Mr To was referring to.
The assembly elections follow the party's selection at a congress earlier this year of a new slate of leaders.
Official data show that 99 per cent of Vietnam's 67.5 million registered voters participated in the 2016 elections. The ballot is anonymous, but each voter's name, age, occupation, ethnicity and address is posted outside polling centres.
One independent candidate is 32-year-old Luong The Huy, a social activist who has stirred debate on social media as Vietnam's first openly LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) candidate.
"I hope with my participation in the highest legislative branch, inclusiveness and minority rights will play a more important role in policy discussions," he told Reuters.