Elections to Vietnam's National Assembly are coming up in May, and the government says it wants to broaden public participation with more delegates who are not members of the Communist Party. It also wants more delegates who decide to run on their own, rather than being nominated by a government-affiliated organization, as most are now. However, Vietnam's system of reviewing candidates will keep many newcomers off the ballot. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.
Last year, Do Viet Khoa, a math teacher in a village near Hanoi, blew the whistle on school administrators who had organized an exam-cheating racket. Khoa became a national celebrity, and this year, he decided to run for Vietnam's National Assembly.
Vietnam's Communist-run government is encouraging people like Khoa, who is not a Communist Party member, to run. But Khoa failed to qualify for the May 20 elections.
As Khoa explains, he was eliminated during the pre-election consultations, which are used to make sure candidates are not too controversial.
Khoa says he first had to go through pre-election consultations in his neighborhood and at his workplace. In his neighborhood, 76 percent of the voters approved of him, but at his school, none did.
Khoa says the ballots were not secret; the school's director called for a show of hands against him. The director was angry at Khoa because his whistle-blowing had cut off a source of income for teachers.
The government's call for more candidates who are self-nominated and are not part of the Communist Party has resulted in a flood of interest. Before the third round of consultations, two-thirds of the candidates in Ho Chi Minh City and over half of those in Hanoi were not party members.
The Vietnam Fatherland Front, a patriotic organization closely tied to the party, organizes the consultations.
Pham Loi, chairman of the Fatherland Front in Hanoi, says the increasing number of non-party candidates is a good sign for the Vietnamese government, which will benefit from the talents and views of different classes of people.
But whether a candidate is a party member is just one issue.
Most candidates, including some of those not in the party, are officially nominated by powerful organizations, such as the Farmer's Association, the Women's Union, or the Communist Party.
Since 1997, candidates have been allowed to nominate themselves. However, independent candidates find it hard to make it onto the ballot.
Thirty-year-old Vu Thi Khanh Van is a law student who runs a company that exports rattan furniture. She says she ran for the National Assembly to improve Vietnam's legal framework.
Van says Vietnam's laws have holes so big, a cow could walk through them.
But Van was knocked out in her neighborhood consultation.
Van says no one in her neighborhood voted for her. She says some people resented her for owning a car, and that she was not allowed to talk about her platform.
Last Friday, the third round of consultations to review candidates took place. In Hanoi, delegates from 57 organizations met and voted on which of the 30 remaining candidates should be on the final ballot. Each organization had one vote, regardless of its size.
This delegate says there should be TV cameras here, to show how democratic Vietnam is.
Delegate Nguyen Tat Tuan, chairman of the Fatherland Front in the Tu Liem district of Hanoi, complains that there were too many candidates.
Tuan says it is dangerous to have six candidates for just three seats. Candidates must receive at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected, and Tuan worries that if the vote is spread too thinly, some seats might go unfilled.
In the end, the third consultation approved all 30 candidates for Hanoi's 21 assembly seats. Nine are not Communist Party members, and six are self-nominated.
But officials said they expect eight more candidates to be nominated by central organizations, such as the government and the Communist Party. Those candidates will almost certainly be elected.
In the current National Assembly, 67 of 491 deputies are not Communist Party members. While that looks set to rise this year, Vietnam's cautious government and voters are ensuring it does not rise too fast.