HANOI, Vietnam >> 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.
“The Vietnamese government feels compelled to call their system democratic and to hold elections to try to tell the rest of the world that their version of democracy is just different from others,” Raymond Burghardt, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and now director of seminars at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said in a telephone interview. “But the essence of this political system is that no alternative centers of power will be permitted to emerge.”
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.
Bloomberg News contributed to this story.