The country's ruling Communist Party blocked more than 100 independent nominees from running — an unprecedented number whose ranks included a businessman, academics, activists, a taxi driver and a pop star.

Of the 870 candidates approved to contest the poll, which takes place every five years, only 11 were not Communist Party members.

The National Elections Committee said the vetting would ensure that certain demographic quotas were met. But the independents are not buying it.

Dr Nguyen Quang A, a renowned businessman, scholar and democracy advocate who was detained twice last year after meeting political prisoners and attending democracy seminars abroad, was considered the most likely independent to make the ballot.

However, his candidacy was blocked and he told the ABC he was not surprised.

"All truly independent self-nominees were blocked," Dr Quang A said, noting that many "independent" nominees were in reality Communist Party members.

"These were clearly fake self-nominees," he said, explaining that they had been planted to give the election some semblance of pluralism.

"A group of human rights and pro-democracy self-nominees emerged this year, which is a new and encouraging feature of the process.

"My guess is that 50 per cent of the independent nominees were fake and that the remaining 50 per cent were split evenly between moderates and human rights and pro-democracy activists."

According to the constitution, anyone over the age of 21 is eligible to run for the National Assembly, regardless of political affiliation.

In reality, a rigorous, highly biased vetting process run by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an umbrella organisation of pro-government groups, makes it almost impossible for independent nominees to make the ballot paper.

The Front canvasses a nominee's work colleagues and neighbours in a vetting or "negotiations" phase in so-called Voter Conferences stacked by local officials.

Even independents who received glowing community endorsements were arbitrarily blocked from running.

Independent candidate threatened with 'traffic accident'

According to a report by Vietnamese journalist and blogger Pham Doan Trang, some independent candidates experienced threats and intimidation, had their movements restricted and were even detained in an attempt to get them to pull out "voluntarily".

Taxi driver Phan Van Bach told reporters that his wife received an anonymous phone call telling her that he "might have a traffic accident" if he did not withdraw.

"The process by which a would-be candidate becomes a candidate is unconstitutional and undemocratic," Dr Quang A said.

"The electoral law, which legitimises this process, has to be rewritten."

Pop star Mai Khoi — labelled the Vietnamese Lady Gaga by the Western press for her sense of style — told the ABC that blocking independent candidates had resulted in public outrage and that there were efforts underway to tap into this sentiment by mobilising supporters to act as monitors on election day.

"They want to document illegal voting practices," she said.

"Other independents have tried to sue the Government for breaking its own laws, but the problem is there is no independent electoral commission or court to handle these complaints."

Mixed views over role of social media in Vietnam politics

Mai Khoi said social media had played an important role in the independents' campaigns.

"In a one-party state like Vietnam, social media is the only platform where activists have a voice and can speak freely," she said.

She said her Facebook account had been disabled twice during her campaign and that she suspected that "the security forces reported me to Facebook in order to silence me".

"I think that Facebook has a responsibility to ensure that activists in one-party states are not silenced and denied access to the only platform they have to communicate to the public," she said.

Mai Khoi, who hopes to meet US President Barack Obama during his visit to Vietnam next week, believes the message such activists have managed to communicate despite the state's efforts to silence them is important.

"Our campaigns have changed the way people think about political participation," she said.

They have also captured the attention of the international media, which traditionally pays scant attention to Vietnamese politics.

"The international media attention on the elections is unprecedented," Mai Khoi said.

"It has helped to document and expose the lack of fairness and transparency of the electoral process."

Extra media coverage counterproductive: expert

But South East Asia specialist Carl Thayer told the ABC that this same attention might have had a negative effect on the independents' campaigns.

"Media attention certainly turned the international spotlight on independents," he said.

"But in reality, all this media coverage was counterproductive and no doubt steeled local officials to find reasons to disqualify independents who attempted to register."

For her part, Mai Khoi is already looking to 2021.

"People in the West can help support activists like me by inspiring young people to participate in politics," she said.

"I hope to inspire youth to nominate themselves for the next National Assembly elections in five years' time, which will help to create pressure for democratic reform."

By Matthew Clayfield - ABC News - May 20, 2016


Vietnam election is no independents’ day

Singer Mai Khoi is one of many candidates barred from running by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party

Mai Khoi wasn’t allowed to take part in Vietnam’s showpiece elections Sunday. Like most independent candidates trying to get a foot in the door of Vietnam’s rubber-stamp legislature, the 32-year-old singer failed to pass the Communist Party’s vigorous screening process.

Instead, one of Vietnam’s best-known celebrities is playing a game of cat and mouse with police, staging secret shows to support her core issues of domestic violence and gender equality.

“This is a concert without permission,” Ms. Mai Khoi said before her latest performance here, just before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived late Sunday for a state visit. “And I will fight until we have that right here in Vietnam.”

Few things better illustrate the contradictions and tensions in modern-day Vietnam than the way it selects members of its National Assembly.

The ruling Communist Party makes a song and dance of the election—quite literally—as a genuine exercise in democracy. For two nights before balloting began, dancers spun cartwheels on a stage at the French-built opera house in Hanoi while singers belted out patriotic ballads to the economic progress Vietnam has made in recent years.

Some 69 million of Vietnam’s 90 million people are eligible to vote, and loudspeakers hung on telephone poles up and down the length of the country exhorted people to make their preferences known.

There isn’t much in the way of choice, however. An official selection committee called the Fatherland Front blocked Ms. Mai Khoi and many other independent candidates—ranging from academics and writers to taxi drivers and a stand-up comedian—from having their names listed on the ballot sheet, often with little explanation. Only a handful passed the screening process.

“I thought it was possible that I could have been a candidate,” Ms. Mai Khoi, who had prepared campaign posters and launched a social-media campaign to help win over voters, said in an interview. “But the process of selection wasn’t transparent.”

The singer, whose full name is Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, said she thinks the selection committee judged her to be too young. Her penchant for pink hair and daring outfits didn’t help, nor did the content of some of her songs, such as “Cuffed in Freedom” and “Selfie Orgasm,” which are often stinging social critiques.

Other candidates realized they had little prospect of being approved to stand for election, but decided to do so anyway in order to push the envelope and better understand how the system works.

Nguyen Quang A, for instance, put together a selection campaign that included a video package and endorsements from voters. A successful businessman and banker who has emerged as one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, Mr. Quang A also published a statement detailing his assets on Facebook, but to no avail. “The vetting committee found some people who said I didn’t say hello to them on the street, and that seemed to be enough to disqualify me,” Mr. Quang A said.

Independent candidates aren’t a new phenomenon in Vietnam. The constitution allows anyone to run for a seat in the National Assembly if they pass the selection process. At times, the Communist Party has quietly encouraged nonparty members to do so to create the impression that a form of democracy does exist, diplomats and other people familiar with the situation say.

The difference this time is that a broader range of candidates put themselves forward for this year’s election. “For the first time, we saw militant candidates nominating themselves, liberal candidates, candidates who wanted to talk about human rights, candidates who wanted to talk about social issues,” Mr. Quang A said. “This was new and it scared the authorities. The gap between where the people are in terms of demanding more democracy and accountability and the government has grown very wide.”

Representatives for the National Assembly couldn’t be reached for comment. Nguyen Phu Trong, the Communist Party’s General Secretary, said in a statement Sunday: “I’ve seen a robust atmosphere in recent days and I think the people will vote for the most suitable candidates.”

Rights groups argue the human-rights climate in Vietnam has worsened in recent months, after years of power struggles within the upper reaches of the Communist Party resulted a conservative-leaning faction coalescing around the 72-year-old Mr. Trong. The situation is likely to be a topic of conversation when Mr. Obama meets the country’s leaders. U.S. officials have repeatedly linked closer ties and the lifting of a decades-old arms embargo to Vietnam’s improving its human-rights record.

Among other things, bloggers and other dissidents are regularly arrested and jailed on the vaguely defined charge of spreading propaganda against the state. Hundreds of other people have been arrested in recent weeks for holding protests demanding the government introduce stricter environmental safeguards after tons of dead fish washed up on the beach in central Vietnam, near the site of a large industrial complex.

Still, Mr. Quang A and Ms. Mai Khoi both say they are hopeful their failed candidacies might pave the way for more successful attempts next time, five years from now.

“I will try again,” Ms. Mai Khoi said. “The situation should be better then.”

By James Hookway - The Wall Street Journal - May 22, 2016