Nguyen Tuong Thuy (L), one of the former independents associated with the 2016 “self-nomination movement”, during his trial at a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City for anti-state charges on 5 January, 2021. (Photo: STR/ Vietnam News Agency/ AFP)

Nguyen Tuong Thuy (L), one of the former independents associated with the 2016 “self-nomination movement”, during his trial at a courthouse in Ho Chi Minh City for anti-state charges on 5 January, 2021. (Photo: STR/ Vietnam News Agency/ AFP)

Vietnam’s 2021 National Assembly Election: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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The process of self-nomination to Vietnam’s legislature is fraught with political peril, which reflects the calibrated rules of the election under the communist regime.

Self-nominees to Vietnam’s legislature can be subject to punitive sanctions particularly if one is on the wrong side of the fence. Prior to last week’s announcement of candidates in Vietnam’s 15th National Assembly election, scheduled to take place on 23 May, the buzz surrounding this year’s self-nomination centered on the arrests of independent self-nominees. Within a few weeks of each other, blogger Tran Quoc Khanh and online broadcaster of CHTV Le Trong Hung were charged in March with “making, storing, and disseminating documents and materials for anti-state purposes” under Article 177 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code. In January and April, two former independents associated with the so-called “2016 self-nomination movement,” Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, were also indicted on the same charges. Following three rounds of consultative conferences headed by the Vietnam Fatherland Front, a mass organisation subordinate to the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in charge of the candidate-vetting process, only nine out of 868 candidates approved for the final ballot are self-nominees. Of these nine, six are members of the CPV. 

Outcries against these arrests within and outside the country prompted the CPV Online Newspaper, to run an article on 14 April titled “No such thing as individuals being prosecuted for ‘self-nomination.’” The article asserts that those who disclaim the authority of the CPV by committing anti-state activities “will be prosecuted, whether they are self-nominated candidates or not.” 

Self-nomination has been permitted in Vietnam since 1992 as a mode of  “managed participation” under the country’s communist system. The statement in the newspaper, a party-controlled outlet, reflects the parameters imposed by the party on this mode of political participation: wherein self-nomination is permitted, it is only permitted insofar as it does not directly challenge or oppose the regime. While this party baseline has remained more or less the same, political space for opposition coordination in the legislative election has contracted. 

Former pop singer and activist Mai Khoi commemorating her self-nomination experience in 2016. (Photo: Do Nguyen Mai Khoi/ Facebook)
Former pop singer and activist Mai Khoi commemorating her self-nomination experience in 2016. (Photo: Do Nguyen Mai Khoi/ Facebook)

In 2016, a coordinated online campaign by civil society actors vying for seats as independent self-nominees in the National Assembly generated immense public interest. In the end, none of these independents, many of whom were labelled by the People’s Army as “troublemakers,” passed the vetting process, and the only two self-nominees elected to the 14th National Assembly were CPV members. Nevertheless, this “self-nomination movement” offered a new repertoire of electoral opposition. Riding on the momentum of her first self-nomination experience, Mai Khoi, a former pop singer, boldly called in a Facebook event for one million self-nominees for the 2021 National Assembly election. But in the run-up to this year’s election, the number of self-nominees is clearly nowhere near this lofty aim.

Self-Nomination Under Communist Reins

Self-Nominees on the Official Ballot for the 15th National Assembly

Electoral UnitsParty MembershipSelf-Nominated CandidatesAffiliation
HanoiCPVHoang Van CuongVice Rector of National Economics University
HanoiIndependentLuong The HuyDirector of the Institute for Social, Economic and Environmental Studies
HanoiCPVNguyen Anh TriChairman of Vietnam Society of Hematology and Blood Transfusion 
HCMCCPVUng Thi Xuan HuongDeputy Head of Research and Training Department, Vietnam Lawyers Association
HCMCCPVTruong Trong NghiaVice Chairman of Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association
Can ThoIndependentNguyen Thien ThucExecutive Director of Thanh Phuc Vocational Training Center
Bac KanIndependentNguyen Kim HungActing Director of Vietnam Institute of Business Administration and Digital Economy
Nam DinhCPVKhuong Thi MaiManaging Director of Namsung Aluminum Vietnam Co., Ltd.
Soc TrangCPVTran Khac Tam13th VNA Deputy, Member of Soc Trang Provincial Vietnam Fatherland Front
Source: Compiled by author from official candidate list, available online on VTV News  

In a forthcoming article, I argue that the emergence of independent self-nominees in the 2016 election and their opposition coordination were contingent on cumulative linkages among individuals across spheres of civil society, as well as political opportunities resulting from environmental factors, such as institutional openings, rifts among political elites, and decline of state repression. Indeed, since 2016, civil society actors have continued to actively participate in overlapping arenas of contention. Prior to their arrests, Le Trong Hung and Tran Quoc Khanh were openly vocal about democratisation and anti-China issues. In a Facebook post dated 4 September 2020, Hung published a petition letter, appealing to the National Assembly to establish a constitutional review of the Dong Tam trial, in which two villagers received death sentences for the alleged murder of three policemen over the Dong Tam land dispute. Likewise, Khanh has openly expressed critical views of Vietnam’s maritime response to China and its lack of efforts at democratisation. As a strong advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights and gender equality, which may be perceived as less confrontational toward the regime, Luong The Huy is but one of the three independent self-nominees appearing on the final ballots.

Over the past few years, the CPV, however, has taken steps to narrow political opportunities for potential opposition. An anti-graft campaign launched in 2016 by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has purged factions with ties to former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. To fill the power vacuum after the late President Tran Dai Quang’s sudden passing in 2018, Trong concurrently held the state president position with a more ambitious agenda for cementing party centralisation. Since 2018, the Cybersecurity Law has also dialled up the government’s internet control and surveillance. After the 13th CPV National Congress in February 2021, the appointment of Pham Minh Chinh, a veteran intelligence officer and former Deputy Minister of Public Security, as the new Prime Minister, coupled with the increased number of the Vietnam People’s Army members in the Politburo and the Central Committee, signals a more authoritarian turn. 

Over the past few years, the CPV, however, has taken steps to narrow political opportunities for potential opposition.

As one of the few single-party regimes in the region, Vietnam has been highly resilient. Teetering between outright repression and responsiveness to social demands, Vietnam’s performance has varied. Notably, Vietnam has fared better than China in achieving growth with higher income equality. Addressing citizen grievances, the 2013 Land Law has strengthened the legal framework to restrict arbitrary land expropriation. Revisions in the 2019 Labor Code have now allowed workers to form independent trade unions. Vietnam’s successful control of the pandemic, all the while maintaining a positive growth rate, has also gained high citizen approval for the Party.  

Yet, on political rights and other civil liberties, the country’s freedom ranking in 2020 only surpasses North Korea, China, and Laos in the region. Specifically, in comparison with China, Vietnam might be considered relatively more open by permitting independent self-nominees and direct elections of the legislature whereas China does not. Pushing for political liberalisation, some civil society actors, including a number of independent self-nominees in the 2016 election, even publicly petitioned for a multi-party system and a constitutional court. But the proposals were ultimately rejected. As the contraction of the political space for independent self-nominees shows, limited thrusts toward political liberalisation are, in the words of Soviet writer Aleksandr Gelman, like “an unclenched fist, but the hand is the same and at any moment it could be clenched again into a fist.”

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