Nearly 830 candidates are competing for the 500 seats of the National Assembly, constitutionally the 'highest organ of state power.'

Colourful posters bear slogans such as 'The National Assembly election is the festival of the whole people,' or the equally enthusing 'Going to vote is the right and task of each citizen.'

Loudspeakers blast out the occasional injunction to vote, interspersed with familiar military refrains. But in private, conversation rarely turns to the range of democratic options.

'To be honest, I am not really enthusiastic about voting because we don't believe it will make a difference,' said Le Bach Duong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies in Hanoi. 'Things have been fixed. Nothing will change whoever is elected.'

On Sunday, the elections are to be held for the National Assembly and People's Council for the next four years.

The assembly nominally legislates and controls state budgets. However, it is in practice answerable to the Communist Party.

Almost all candidates are put forward by government officials, and all are vetted by the Party before their candidacy is confirmed. The assembly can in theory reject the candidates, but seldom does in practice.

Also in theory, would-be independents are allowed to put their own names forward, which 83 people attempted for this year's poll.

But only 15 of those managed to pass the required vetting by representatives of their local community.

Some pro-democracy activists have nominated themselves, knowing they would almost certainly fail to be accepted as candidates, in a deliberate gesture of protest.

These included activist lawyer Le Quoc Quan, a former fellow of the US-based National Endowment for Democracy.

Another lawyer, Cu Huy Ha Vu, who has been sentenced to seven years in jail for 'spreading propaganda against the state,' in the previous election also mounted a failed attempt to be allowed to run.

Other rejected self-nominations in the past have included human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, an outspoken critic of bauxite mining in Central Vietnam, who is now imprisoned for threatening 'national security,' and high school teacher Do Viet Khoa, who has campaigned against corruption in the education system.

This year's assembly election coincides with the elections of provincial People's Councils across the country. The 4,000 members of these councils are directly elected, and then appoint People's Committees, which are the effective administrative power in local affairs.

The government has budgeted 35 million dollars for the election, to cover the estimated 91,000 polling stations and colourful propaganda campaigns. But it is not clear whether this has had much impact on voters.

'I received my voter card last Sunday, but I don't know any names of candidates in my area,' said Nguyen Thu Nga, an employee of a printing company in Hanoi. 'The National Assembly election is very formalistic.'

'I haven't decided whether I should go or not to vote on Sunday yet,' she said.

'However, I'm happy because my company has received many orders to print leaflets and posters,' she said.

A foreign observer agreed. 'When I first saw the election posters, I thought the election felt very democratic,' said an Asian diplomat who has lived in Vietnam for three years.

'But after talking to local people, I reckoned my first impressions were wrong,' he said. 'Vietnamese people are more interested in inflation than choosing their representatives.'

By Pham Bac and Marianne Brown - Deutsche Presse Agentur - May 23, 2011


Vietnamese voters cast ballots in one-party state

From candidates' resumes read in dead tone across crackling corner loudspeakers to propaganda art depicting smiling grandmothers dropping ballots in the box, Vietnam's government urged everyone to participate in the "right and obligation of all citizens" during Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Though the fanfare leading up to the polling was grand, with parades and red banners streaming across roadways proclaiming, "Long live the glorious Communist Party of Vietnam," the 500 members elected to the lawmaking National Assembly will not alter the country's direction regardless of who's selected. And as soaring food and energy prices continue to stab poor voters, the only real change many here care about is taking a breath of economic relief.

All of the 827 candidates have already been vetted by the Fatherland Front, a powerful party umbrella organization, and 86 percent of those running are Communist Party members in a country where publicly calling for a multiparty system can result in long jail sentences.

Ninety-eight percent of the candidates were picked by the Fatherland Front, with only 15 nominating themselves and then winning the organization's nod to run.

Two or three candidates are picked by voters in each district from the four or five on the ballot. Turnout for the election held every four years is typically high since voting is mandatory, but many people vote without ever setting foot in a polling station. It's common for one family member to cast ballots for everyone in the household.

"I'm struggling to make ends meet," said Nguyen Thi Chinh, 68, from northern Thanh Hoa province, who's been selling newspapers in the capital, Hanoi, for four years. "My husband will vote for me and our two children."

Chinh manages to save 5,000 dong (25 cents) to 10,000 dong (50 cents) a day to send back to her family all that's left after she spends up to six times that amount on food and cheap housing.

Many Vietnamese have little interest in elections or other Communist Party events. Instead, they are busy scraping together a living in one of Asia's fastest-growing countries, where food, electricity and fuel prices have exploded amid double-digit inflation. Vietnam's rice prices are the region's highest, increasing nearly 40 percent between June 2010 and February, according to the Asian Development Bank.

But unlike elections held in democratic countries, Vietnamese candidates do not campaign around promises of improvement or call for the ouster of incumbents with poor track records.

"Vietnam's electoral process has been designed to prevent hot-button issues from being discussed by the candidates," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. "Voters are not presented a choice of candidates who differ on how issues such as inflation and rising prices should be addressed."

The National Assembly was viewed in the past as a rubber stamp that blindly passes the government's policies. In recent years, however, it has started to assert itself more by calling for the government to root out rampant corruption and waste along with openly criticizing some controversial projects.

Last year, in a landmark move, parliament put the brakes on a proposed $56 billion north-south bullet train, saying it was too pricey for the country of 87 million, where the average monthly wage is about $100.

National Assembly member Nguyen Minh Thuyet shocked many in another bold move last year by calling for an investigation to determine whether Cabinet members, including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, were responsible for massive losses at the state-owned shipbuilding conglomerate Vinashin.

It was a scandal that left the company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and drowning in debts equal to 4.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. It resulted in a financial black eye when international ratings services issued credit downgrades.

Although Thuyet's calls for a probe were dismissed, he said it's important for the National Assembly's "democratic trend" to continue. He said the government must find a balance in its quest for high growth rates because current policies are resulting in skyrocketing inflation, which is crippling the working poor.

In January, new leaders were selected for the all-powerful Politburo during the grand pomp-and-circumstance Party Congress held every five years. The new National Assembly is expected to convene its first meeting in July to appoint the country's new leaders.

However, it is a ceremonial announcement since those positions, including the president, prime minister and parliamentary chair, were already decided behind closed doors during the secretive Party Congress.

The Associated Press - May 23, 2011


One-party Vietnam votes in national election

HANOI — Vietnam voted Sunday in an election officially described as a "great political event" even though the ruling communists were guaranteed to maintain power and the electorate seemed to lack enthusiasm.

More than 60 million people were eligible to cast ballots for 500 members of the National Assembly, widely regarded as becoming more outspoken despite being under communist control.

The assembly will later endorse the one-party state's new government.

People were already arriving to cast their votes shortly after polling stations officially opened at 7:00 am (0000 GMT).

A bank worker, Pham Thanh Thuy, 32, said she only went to the polls because it is compulsory.

"Frankly, I am not at all interested in the candidates who will be elected... it changes nothing for me," she said.

Though technically illegal, many people like Do Thi Dung, 47, cast ballots on behalf of their entire families.

"I don't know who I voted for," she said. "I want to save time to go and do other things."

The official mood, in contrast, was celebratory.

"Go to vote! Go to vote!" a man sang in operatic tones on Hanoi's ubiquitous propaganda loudspeakers.

There has been daily coverage on state television of election preparations, and red banners hang in city streets.

"The whole people are excited and glad, looking forward to the elections," said one banner, while Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the vote would be "a great political event for the people of Vietnam".

The election is part of a five-yearly political ritual that began in January with the party's congress which determined key leadership positions.

Although Vietnam's authoritarian leadership ruled out an end to the one-party system it allows about 10 percent of legislators to be non-party members.

But to make it to the list of 827 candidates, even the non-party members have to go through a process that ensures controversial names are weeded out.

Fifteen candidates are self-nominated while all the rest have been put forward by organisations such as official womens' or veterans' groups, said Nguyen Si Dung, the assembly's deputy secretary general.

Candidates have been screened by the Fatherland Front, a link between the party and the people, and approved by their neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Polling stations display mugshots of those running for office, along with their single-page biographies.

Although the assembly is "the highest representative organ of the people", power resides with the Politburo and a 200-member Central Committee, which were elected by delegates to the January Congress.

The Politburo has already assigned top leadership positions among itself, analysts said.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is expected to remain in his post after fending off a challenge by longtime rival Truong Tan Sang, who is forecast to be named president, a largely symbolic post.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at The University of New South Wales, said all 14 members of the Politburo are standing for election, which has not always been the case in previous polls.

"They'll all win. Therefore, in the communist view they'll have a greater degree of legitimacy," he said.

Despite its control by the communists, even critics concede the National Assembly has become more vocal. Dung, the assembly official, said he expects the chamber's role in ensuring "transparency and accountability" to grow.

"I'm sure that there is no way to stop that," he said.

Election results are expected in seven to 10 days, with the new assembly likely to gather on July 21 and formally endorse the prime minister and president.

By Ian Timberlake - Agence France Presse - May 22, 2011