Dismayed at lawmakers, public wants change in parliament

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A view of the opening ceremony of the second annual session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on October 20, 2011. With a growing number of lawmakers continuing to sow worries that the house might no longer represent the aspirations of the people, the question has again cropped up: Should the National Assembly elections system be overhauled?

One week after a controversial lawmaker issued a mea culpa for a personal blog entry that drew the ire of the masses for deriding his fellow assemblyman, the furor and the fury are not yet over.

The opponents of Hoang Huu Phuoc, including his constituents, his fellow assemblymen and retired lawmakers, insisted that he should step down as a legislator. Some critics even said his continued participation in the National Assembly would do nothing but discredit the nation's legislative body.

At a plenary session of the house in 2011, Phuoc, who was among four out of 15 self-nominated candidates elected, had also irked the public by saying Vietnam would not be able to enforce the Demonstration Law until the intellectual standards of its people became higher and its economy more stable.

"Provided people like Phuoc remain lawmakers, it should come as no surprise if the house continues to draft such ludicrous laws," Thanh Thao, a senior columnist, wrote in an op-ed to Thanh Nien this week.

Thao's criticism was a direct attack on an article in the bill on immigration that envisages terminating the permanent family registers of Vietnamese citizens who reside overseas for more than two years. At a meeting to discuss the bill on Tuesday (February 26), house speaker Nguyen Sinh Hung dismissed such proposals as "unrealistic."

Though the Ministry of Public Security said Thursday it would scrap this proposal, it has become increasingly common for the Vietnamese public to vent their grievances against regulations drafted by lawmakers, whom one prominent critic said were "sitting in the sky."

With a growing number of lawmakers like Phuoc continuing to sow worries that the house might no longer represent the aspirations of the people, the question has again cropped up: Should the National Assembly elections system be overhauled?

"This is not the first time people are saying that National Assembly deputies have much room for improvement," said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, who for decades was one of the most outspoken lawmakers until his retirement in July 2011.

"Thus the electoral system for the National Assembly deputies should be improved," Thuyet told Vietweek. "It has to begin with allowing the masses to know more about the candidates and demand that they have much more concrete action plans as lawmakers if elected."

Of 827 candidates running for the May 2011 election, fifteen were self-nominated while the rest were put forward by organizations such as official women's or veterans' groups. Before voters cast their ballots, brief biographies and mugshots of the candidates were delivered to the houses of the constituents and displayed at polling stations.

It was not rare for those who cast their ballots to admit that they were not interested in the candidates as the elections would change nothing for then. Though technically illegal, many people cast ballots on behalf of their entire families, saying they did not know who to vote for.

But Thuyet, the retired lawmaker, said the people should also make the most of exercising their constitutional rights by only voting for those who they think are right.

"That is extremely important, given that public referendum is very rare in Vietnam."

The National Assembly, once perceived as a rubber stamp, gained public kudos in its last tenure for performing its executive oversight functions with greater diligence, asking tough questions and demanding government accountability.

But with around two-thirds of the parliament seats filled by new faces, critics have said the body is short on representatives with the right amount of experience to participate in forthright deliberations that show knowledge and interest in issues.

"The system of election for the National Assembly should be overhauled indeed"¦ for the reason that is whether the [house] is pulling its weight in governance, especially in fighting nonsensical laws and regulations, checking on the parts of government that are ineffective, and fighting corruption," said David Koh, a Vietnam analyst in Institute if Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore.

Koh said the house would also have to be constructive in giving suggestions and alternatives to solutions and laws tabled by the government.  Its success should be measured not by what it says but more by what it does, he said.

"For that to happen, talent is needed in the National Assembly."

The analysts said the electoral system should give less weight to sector representation, but more to individuals who have unique solutions and out-of-the-box thinking and are willing to share their thoughts and solutions.

But they also said that beyond the electoral system, there are many things needed to be done to make the National Assembly more effective than now. The key changes are culture, practices, and attitudes, they said.

"How do people look upon the National Assembly?  Do people consult the National Assembly frequently enough? How often do National Assembly members come into contact with the ordinary people, and how effective are National Assembly members in reflecting the people's wishes, and resolve the denunciations and appeals of the people?" Koh said.

Last May, Dang Thi Hoang Yen, one of Vietnam's wealthiest people and chairwoman of industrial park developer Tan Tao Group, lost her seat on the 500-member National Assembly after the house found that she had failed to disclose that her Vietnamese-American husband was wanted by the police for fraud when she ran for the election. She also did not mention that she was a member of the Communist Party in her first application.

But it was only then that her constituents appeared to get to know more about her.

"She used to be a Good Samaritan who gave a helping hand to needy people here," one of Yen's constituents in the Mekong Delta province of Long An said before her sacking.

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"Other than that, I know very little about her," she said on condition of anonymity. "I just voted for her, like other people did."

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