Great expectations

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Bold legislators have set new standards for incoming parliamentarians


Students walk along a road building site in Hanoi on May 17. Experts and the public are hoping the new National Assembly will emulate the previous one in holding the government accountable for its actions.

Duong Trung Quoc was all set to hang up his parliamentary boots this year, but a lack of younger representatives has made him a candidate in the National Assembly elections yet again.

However, the seasoned legislator, who turns 64 this year, has no plans to take it easy.

Instead, he wants to make sure that the parliament addresses the rising wealth disparity that has bogged down the nation's development over the last few decades.

Quoc said the prevailing Land Law desperately needs a major shakeup, otherwise it would just continue to fuel social inequality that has rendered an increasing number of farmers landless.

"My colleagues and I have repeatedly urged amendments [to the Land Law] but our calls have fallen on deaf ears. Loopholes in the law have enabled profits to accrue only to certain interest groups and pushed more people into stark poverty."

Fellow deputy Nguyen Minh Thuyet, who is retiring this year, also said unsustainable growth should continue to top the agenda in future assembly sessions.

"The way the government has been supporting the poor is not sustainable. We are giving them tiny fish instead of the badly needed fishing rod," said Thuyet, also an outspoken lawmaker.

He said that the "other side" of Vietnam's signing of multilateral treaties and pursuing an export-oriented growth policy have become painfully apparent as farmers are still unable to get what they deserve.

"We encourage the farmers to grow paddy to ensure national security but the paddy prices haven't given them decent profits. That is really unfair and irrational."

As a voter in the upcoming election held nationwide this Sunday (May 22), Thuyet said he hoped his successors would be able to learn the right lessons from previous tenures.

"I don't think the future deputies will be starting from scratch," he said. "They know how the National Assembly has been performing in the past and I hope they will continue to fight decisions that are impractical and against people's will."

Outspoken National Assembly delegates like Thuyet and Quoc have been raising the bar for deputies, transforming the legislative body once perceived as a rubber stamp into one that has earned public praise for performing its executive oversight functions with greater diligence, asking tough questions and demanding accountability.

"Over the past two years, particularly last year, the National Assembly has become much more assertive and active," said John Hendra, the outgoing United Nations chief in Vietnam, referring to several rare moves the legislature made last year, rejecting government proposals for various reasons.

At the final session of the legislature in March, a majority of lawmakers voted against a bill that would have given special rights and privileges to the capital city of Hanoi. Last June, the house also overwhelmingly rejected the proposed US$56 billion express railway project linking Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City saying the nation could not be able to afford it, and that it was economically unsound.

ELECTION FACTS

* Voters will elect 500 delegates from 827 candidates to serve a five-year term.

* Most candidates are nominated by social organizations, companies and central government or provincial authorities.

* There are 15 independent candidates, half the number at the 2007 election; their nominations were approved by colleagues and neighbors.

* About 14.1 percent, or 117 candidates, are non-Party members.

* Re-nominated candidates from the previous tenure number 179, or 21.6 percent.

* 626 people, or 75.7 percent, are first-time candidates. There are 260 women, 31.4 percent of the total, and 133 ethnic minority candidates, or 16.1 percent.

* 491 candidates, or 59.4 percent, have a university degree; 302 candidates, or 36.5 percent, have a Masters degree or a doctorate; 34 candidates, or 4.1 percent, don't have tertiary education.

* Minimum voting age is 18 years.

* Paper ballots are used for voting.

* Ballots are counted by hand after polls close at 5 p.m. Results are announced within 15 days unless a re-election is called for in any locality.

Hendra also praised the National Assembly for increased transparency that has enabled citizens to hold government officials accountable. Lawmakers have begun to grill cabinet members and pore over government policies more than they did in the past, he said.

"The National Assembly has become more proactive"¦ coming closer to its constitutional role of being the nation's premier legislative body," said Ben Kerkvliet, a Vietnam specialist from The Australian National University. "I expect the National Assembly to continue making gains in this direction."

Challenges, old and new

The parliamentary election is taking place on the heels of the Party Congress in January when top officials admitted that corruption and abuse of power were hampering national development.

The new National Assembly, the country's legislature, will have to hit the ground running with major challenges like inflation already hurting most residents.

"Vietnam's inflation rate is higher than other ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] economies and is among the highest worldwide," Hendra said. "Immediate impacts of inflation are felt by the urban poor, in particular poor migrant workers, pensioners and those with low incomes."

Vietnam's year-on-year inflation rate in April reached 17.51 percent, also the fastest since 2008.

Many voters are skeptical that the National Assembly can make a difference addressing the challenges facing the nation at this juncture.

A young lecturer with the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education said he was voting only to fulfill his citizen obligation.

"I have little faith that any major change lies ahead," said the 26-year-old who wished to remain anonymous. "No matter who is elected, it will not make a big difference."

Tran Thi Phuong, 60, said that from what she saw, the deputies had delivered very little on what they promised during their election campaign four years ago.

But Phuong, a newspaper vendor on a sidewalk in HCMC's District 3, was less critical.

"I don't blame the deputies all for that. I know they faced many hurdles in honoring their commitments. They are not angels who can make the people's aspirations come true overnight."

"˜Much progress'

Party General Secretary and current National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong has said the incoming legislature has to be proactive in reviewing legislation, approving the budget, questioning ministers, and scrutinizing government performance.

Carl Thayer, another Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said he believed that each new legislature builds on the legacy of its predecessor. All ministers should be aware that if their proposal fails to meet national interest, the deputies will vote against it, he said.

"A majority out of 500 deputies is a good basis for reflecting the view of the people."

Nguyen Kim Phuong, an 81- year-old HCMC resident who fought in the resistance wars against the French and the Americans, said that he had participated in every election but the first one in 1946.

Phuong said he has seen "˜much progress' in the National Assembly since its early years.

"Nothing can prevent the legislature from evolving as it is an inevitable process," Phuong said. He said that no matter who is heading the new parliament, he was confident it would challenge and monitor the government.

Given the impressive performance of the National Assembly over the last two years, UN's Hendra said he really hoped the next election would usher in a stronger parliament.

"Honestly, many people [four] years ago did not have very high expectations. So you never know."

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