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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 May 2007, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Communists keep tight grip on Vietnam
Vietnam elects a new National Assembly on Sunday, although since only the Communist Party is allowed to field candidates the outcome is not in much doubt.

The election follows a crackdown on activists who had been calling for free elections. The BBC's Bill Hayton, who in March was told to leave Vietnam by the government, has been investigating the prospects for democracy there.

Father Nguyen Van Ly (file image)
Father Nguyen Van Ly was jailed for eight years in March
The sight of a secret policeman forcing his hand over the mouth of a Catholic priest, Nguyen Van Ly, to prevent him shouting out an anti-communist poem during his trial seemed to sum up Vietnam's attitude towards political dissent.

But at the same time as the country's security forces are engaged in what Human Rights Watch has called "one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissent in 20 years", the Communist Party is experimenting with a degree of openness.

So what are the prospects for democracy in Vietnam?

At first sight Vietnam's National Assembly looks like little more than a rubber-stamping body.

Ninety per cent of the members in the last session were members of the Communist Party and the 10% that were not all had to be approved by the party in order to stand for election.

Officials grilled

The party maintains close control over what the assembly discusses and decides.

For example, although in theory the assembly elects the president and prime minister there is only ever one candidate on the ballot - the candidate previously chosen by the party.

Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh
I resist the idea that voters are always right
Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh
National Assembly member

But that is not the whole story, because the assembly is beginning to show some signs of independent thinking in the way it scrutinise laws and holds ministers to account.

In the past few sessions the grilling of officials seen to have failed in their jobs, live on television, has gripped the country.

Poor performances by the scandal-hit former minister of transport and the seemingly complacent head of the Supreme Court caused them to later lose their jobs.

However, some members believe that the current situation is not enough. Those such as Do Trong Ngoan want more.

"The vision and the knowledge of the National Assembly have to be developed," he says, "or the assembly will be left behind and if that happens we won't be able to take the right decisions and that would lead to long-lasting backwardness of the country."

Communist approval

But while some parts of the communist system want greater openness - others do not.

The trials of dissidents in the past few months, including the priest Father Ly in March, was vivid proof.

Their crimes were to call for multi-party elections.

Road in Vietnam - 2005 photo
Despite strong economic growth recently, Vietnam is still poor

The Communist Party believes its role is to lead the country - and not necessarily to follow the wishes of the people.

This position is expertly articulated by the woman who is the assembly's leading diplomat - often leading delegations to Washington and other countries - Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh.

"I resist the idea that voters are always right," she says.

"I know that there are in any country enclaves of conservatism, look at what happened in South Africa with apartheid. What is right does not always coincide with majority rule."

Although any citizen can, in theory, stand for election to the National Assembly, they first have to be approved by the Communist Party.

There are two selection processes, both organised by the party's umbrella organisation called the Vietnam Fatherland Front.

In the first hearing the prospective candidate must convince their work colleagues of their good character and in the second they must do the same with the people living in their neighbourhood.

This micro-control means that anyone with views outside what the party views as acceptable will not even get the chance to stand.

'Differing views'

However, some parts of the party are keen to get more independents elected to widen the pool of talent in the assembly.

These would not be dissidents but something like a "loyal opposition". But even this, like other areas of political reform, is opposed by others.

Huynh Nguyen Dao is led into Ho Chi Minh City People's Court - 10/05/07
Five activists were jailed earlier in May
No Vietnamese political analysts will comment on divisions within the party directly, but Martin Gainsborough, of Bristol University in the UK, keeps a close eye on the evolution of Vietnamese politics.

"Within Vietnam - both official Vietnam and unofficially - there's a wide range of differing views about the speed of political change," he says.

"Some people within the system think the National Assembly should go further in asserting its role in the country. Others think that change is fast enough already and want to proceed more carefully. Part of the challenge, part of the ongoing debate in Vietnam is about working out those issues."

Political reform in Vietnam is slow but it is happening and so long as it does not challenge the supremacy of the Communist Party it is likely to continue.

Vietnam's communist rulers are happy to experiment with openness to make the current system more efficient but any transition to a new system, a truly open and democratic system, is still a long way off.

Reform call by ex-Vietnamese PM
10 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Three activists jailed in Vietnam
10 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam priest jailed for dissent
30 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam detains rights lawyers
05 Feb 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam 'to axe detention decree'
31 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Vietnam
10 May 07 |  Country profiles


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