Some one hundred prospective independent candidates met the recent deadline to register for upcoming legislative elections.
But as they put their names forward, at the beginning of a daunting vetting process for the May 22 National Assembly election, they were greeted by what sounded like an ominous warning.
The Hanoi election committee alleged that “unsavoury elements” were trying to influence the poll, and said some would-be candidates were funded by “domestic and foreign reactionary forces”.
The Communist party and its affiliates, however, have been sending out mixed messages, as they weigh up how to respond to what looks like an unprecedented challenge to the party’s monopoly on power.
Some of the independents are pro-democracy campaigners and human rights activists that want to challenge the government’s claims that the system is democratic. Others are individuals with a range of causes who say they simply want to make the legislature more representative.
Amongst the latter group are another novelty for Vietnam: celebrity candidates, including the comedian, Nguyen Cong Vuong, and the singer, Mai Khoi, who is known for her explicit song lyrics and provocative costumes.
The Hanoi election committee did not back up its allegations against self nominated candidates with any evidence. But the statement was seen as a warning of the harsh repression that the authorities could resort to silence their critics.
Some official media joined in the attack, with warnings about electoral sabotage tactics and biased information propagated by publications based overseas.
Other officials, however, have welcomed the electoral process, and by implication the fact that independents are trying to take part.
“It shows that the democratic spirit has prevailed..people want to contribute to society,” said the propaganda chief of the Hanoi electoral committee, Nguyen Van Phong, in comments quoted by official media that seemed to contradict the same body’s earlier statement.
The Fatherland Front, the Communist party proxy responsible for vetting prospective candidates, also put out a positive statement.
“Favouring candidates nominated by certain affiliations is strictly forbidden, and any act of discrimination against any nominee is against the law,” said Nguyen Van Pha, vice chairman of the organisation, in comments quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper.
“Candidates should lead an exemplary lifestyle and get on well with voters in their neighbourhood, for it is them who will vote to approve his or her candidacy,” he added.
Independents complain, however, that such criteria is highly subjective, and they are held to account for any comments they have made in the past that are critical of the government and the current one-party system.
Some of the activists say they have faced many obstacles in the nomination process. Others have alleged increased monitoring by the police since they announced their intention to run.
One leading prospective candidate, the former party member and entrepreneur, Nguyen Quang A, says he has little hope of being selected as a candidate.
He believes that his record as a campaigner for a more democratic system of government means that he will be blocked, despite a strong show of support from his supporters online.
All prospective candidates must pass through a number of stages in a vetting process that is controlled by the Fatherland Front.
Small numbers of independents have managed to secure nominations in past elections and been elected to seats in the National Assembly.
This year, however, the challenge to the system from known activists is much more explicit.
Analysts say that the newly reshuffled leadership’s response will contain important clues about its tolerance of dissent and attitude to political reform.