HANOI – Pink-haired pop star Mai Khoi, dubbed Vietnam’s Lady Gaga for her risque outfits, has found a new way to shock: running for parliament along with a motley crew of dissidents and activists testing the limits of the authoritarian nation.
The flamboyant singer is no stranger to controversy. Her song “Selfie Orgasm” prompted a storm of criticism, and her sartorial choices, including braless public appearances, regularly cause ripples of shock in the staid state-run media.
Now the 32-year-old has joined an array of lawyers, journalists, and political dissidents posing a challenge to the communist leadership by running for elected office in the National Assembly.
“The media discussion has centered on whether my views, lifestyle and dress sense are suitable for a member of the National Assembly,” Mai Khoi said.
“I am who I am. Ultimately, I hope people will judge me on the strength of my ideas, not the color of my hair,” she said, adding that she would work to promote gay rights and fight violence against women if elected.
On paper, Vietnam — unlike its northern neighbor China — has an admirably democratic Constitution, which allows any person over 21 years to seek election to parliament, said academic Nguyen Quang A, another candidate.
In reality however, more than 90 percent of the some 500-strong legislative body are members of the ruling Communist Party, with the remaining lawmakers being mostly wealthy businesspeople seeking to advance their interests, he said.
“We’re trying to help the regime to realize their rhetoric. Their rhetoric is very nice. The reality is very different,” Quang A said.
Quang A said he sees his run for parliament as part of a “democratic learning process” for the country, which needs to learn to “serve, not rule.”
“Even in a dictatorship you can educate people to respect democratic values,” he said, speaking with deliberate loudness for the benefit of the plain-clothes police that often follow him.
After the March 13 deadline, some 100 independent candidates had applied to run for office in the polls to be held on May 22.
Although such candidates have run in previous National Assembly elections, this is the first time a significant number have sought to use polls as a form of peaceful protest against the one-party state.
Many who were interviewed said they were prepared for jail. More likely though, is the use of more mundane administrative methods to block them.
Candidates are required to submit detailed paperwork to local authorities in their home constituency, which the four interviewed all said had presented problems — mostly authorities throwing up petty objections in a bid to disqualify them.
Mai Khoi said she had been threatened with rejection of paperwork over a minor irregularity which she had not been given a chance to correct.
“I can only imagine that this unreasonable request is the result of political interference and an attempt to block my candidature,” the pop star said, adding that the current status of her application was unclear.
“The outcome of my case will send a clear message to the world about the fairness of the electoral process,” she added.
If their paperwork is accepted, the candidates will have to go through a series of interviews with local authorities and then Vietnam’s Fatherland Front, which oversees national elections.
“I am not naive,” said Quang A, who lightheartedly puts his odds of actually getting elected at around 1 in 10 billion.
The government has not commented on the independents but the National Election Committee said this week that “foreign reactionary groups” were funding and supporting some candidates.
But the would-be parliamentarians are not to be deterred.
“We’re pioneers,” said former career soldier turned political activist Nguyen Tuong Thuy, who is a member of the banned Free Journalist Club.
Facebook and other social media are key tools that have allowed the independent candidates to use the polls in this way, he said, adding that they organize, raise support, and spread their message online.
“We want to encourage people to understand their rights. Authorities behave like (elections) are some gift they bestow, but it is our right as citizens,” he said.
For Le Luan, 30, a lawyer, the desire to run was born out of a love for his profession and a frustration with the woeful state of lawmaking in the one-party state.
“But success for me is not about winning a position in parliament . . . Success will be realizing my rights, and showing others that if I can do it, anyone can,” he said.