But the rest of her set list included songs, such as one called “Cuffed in Freedom,” that addressed hot-button social issues like corruption, gender inequality and official restrictions on artistic expression.

Ms. Mai Khoi, 32, is among a group of around two dozen Vietnamese activists and celebrities who are running as independents this month for the authoritarian state’s rubber-stamp National Assembly — and effectively daring the ruling Communist Party to not put them on the ballot. Analysts say it is the first time that more than two or three activists have run for office.

Ms. Mai Khoi said her growing interest in social justice and youth issues — expressed through her songs — would make her an appealing candidate for many young Vietnamese who are not otherwise interested in politics.

She already has thousands of supporters, she said after the concert between puffs of a cigarillo, “because they already see what I’m doing in my music.”

Vietnam first allowed independent candidates in 2002, and just seven of a few hundred have won seats in the National Assembly in three elections since, according to an analysis by the United Nations Development Program. These independents have typically been businesspeople or academics who are party members or have deep connections to the government, and most have been weeded out well before voting began by a complex vetting process that the party controls, analysts said. Ms. Mai Khoi, like many other independents this year, is not a party member.

The activist candidates this year mainly come from Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s business hub, and include writers, lawyers, educators and even a stand-up comedian.

“Before, the National Assembly wasn’t so much part of the national consciousness,” but this year’s crop of independents draws from a far wider cross-section of society, said Edmund J. Malesky, a Vietnam specialist and a professor of political economy at Duke University. Continue reading the main story

Professor Malesky said that the independents were younger than ever and that many were discussing their platforms with a degree of openness that is rare in the one-party state. Debates in the National Assembly had become livelier in recent years, he said, and the rise of nontraditional candidates like Ms. Mai Khoi might reflect a growing interest among ordinary Vietnamese in domestic politics.

The candidates do not have a uniform political ideology. Some, like Ms. Mai Khoi, do not consider themselves dissidents. Others, like Nguyen Trang Nhung, describe their candidacies as a direct challenge to a government that often faces heavy criticism from international human rights groups over its jailing of political dissidents.

“We have a one-party regime; I would like to have a multiparty one,” said Ms. Nhung, 34, a businesswoman and activist in Ho Chi Minh City. “If we have many parties, we can choose which one makes things work better.”

One of the best-known independent candidates is Nguyen Quang A, a Hanoi businessman and activist who tried, and failed, to establish Vietnam’s first independent research institute in 2007. In recent weeks, he said, he has collected 5,000 signatures from a diverse group of supporters that includes government officials, even though that was not technically required.

Mr. Quang A, 69, said that Vietnam had recently taken several major steps toward international integration, like joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-led trade deal reached in February that awaits congressional approval. Such a shift, he said, had created room for civil-society groups in Vietnam to operate.

“We’re trying to expand our space, too,” he said of the activist candidates.

But Mr. Quang A conceded that his own bid had almost no chance of succeeding.

“The electoral system is designed to be controlled by the party,” he said.

Reached by telephone on Friday, Nguyen Si Dung, the deputy secretary general of the National Assembly, said he was unavailable for comment.

Vietnam initially allowed independent candidates as part of broader changes that were partly intended to allow the Communist Party to check the power of the prime minister, said Paul Schuler, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona who is writing a book about the National Assembly.

Professor Schuler said that it would be interesting to see how the candidates fared and that if Mr. Quang A made the ballot, it would signal a noticeable “break from the past.” But he added that independents did not represent a fundamental challenge to Vietnam’s political system because the Communist Party’s candidate-vetting process still granted senior officials significant power to decide who could run for office.

“If they don’t control the process, then it’s no longer a single-party regime, and I think they’re firmly aware of that,” he said.

Danh-Quy Nguyen, the managing editor of the Vietnamese edition of Elle Magazine, said that as a pop singer, Ms. Mai Khoi had a reputation for being outspoken and freethinking, and that over the years, critics had accused her of being “too opinionated.” She is a vocal supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and a critic of domestic violence, and society websites have gossiped about her revealing attire.

Ms. Mai Khoi, for her part, is unapologetic about her public persona and political aspirations. But she has been careful to play by the government’s rules as she vies for a seat in the National Assembly.

The law bars her from holding political events, for example, so her campaign debut, such as it was, was a quiet meeting with a handful of journalist friends. And the visual centerpiece of her campaign is a digitally created billboard, featuring her face and slogan, that she has posted on Facebook. (The only physical version hangs on a wall in her Ho Chi Minh City apartment, just above her piano.)

On Thursday, Ms. Mai Khoi’s bid for the National Assembly passed an initial procedural hurdle, she said. The next test will be meeting with a group of Communist Party-approved voters in her hometown, the southern city of Cam Ranh. She would also need the approval of the Fatherland Front, a powerful Communist Party organization, to run for office in May.

But Ms. Mai Khoi said that her campaign, which officially began on March 11, was meant to bring young people into the political process and that she would consider it successful even if she never made the ballot.

“I just want to make politics more public,” she said.

The crowd at her show on Friday night, at the venue Saigon Outcast in Ho Chi Minh City, included supporters of her nascent campaign.

Huynh Thanh Nguyet Anh, 24, a receptionist at a Porsche dealership here, said that she would vote for Ms. Mai Khoi if the singer was permitted to run and that it would be the first vote of her life.

“It’s got to be someone I can trust,” she said.

By Mike Ives - The News York Times - March 21, 2016


Vietnam parliament to put new leadership to work early

Vietnam's outgoing parliament convened for a final session on Monday that will see a new leadership and cabinet take office three months early, ditching the normal route of the public electing a new legislature first.

The National Assembly said the move was to expedite a drawn-out transition and put a new government to work sooner rather than wait for a parliamentary election in May and house endorsement in July.

That means Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will be relieved of his duties earlier than expected, hastening his controversial exit following a Communist Party congress in January at which he was overlooked for the top post of party chief.

Dung has served the maximum two terms as premier and has no future political role. Despite his popularity as an economic liberal who stood up to China's maritime assertiveness, experts say party stalwarts feared Dung could become a strongman in a country traditionally ruled by consensus.

The assembly's general secretary, Nguyen Hanh Phuc, said the change in plan was about boosting efficiency.

"We need new spirit, new motivation, new impetus, implemented from the beginning," he told reporters on Friday when explaining why a new government would be approved by outgoing legislators.

The process is a formality, with nominations for prime minister, president and parliament speaker already approved by the party, which controls the rubber-stamp legislature.

The nominations are Dung's deputy, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, as premier, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang as president and National Assembly vice-chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as legislative head.

Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected for a second term at the January congress.

Lawmakers are set to endorse the three main posts separately between March 31 and April 7. New ministerial positions are due to be approved on April 9.

By Martin Petty & Mai Nguyen - Reuters - March 21, 2016