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Asia

Unexplained fish deaths disrupt Vietnamese vote

Vietnamese voters will elect members of the National Assembly over the weekend, but an environmental disaster linked to the appearance of tons of dead fish has dampened the political mood.

Despite Vietnam being a Communist country, the upcoming vote to elect members of the National Assembly and the People's Council is still deemed crucial. Unlike its neighbor China, Vietnamese parliamentarians meet regularly and discuss legislation.

This weekend's elections are expected to open up more space for the National Assembly to make independent decisions, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Vietnam said in its recent country report. But whatever the result, elected members are still there to mostly carry forward the party agenda and consolidate the power of the ruling elite, it said.

"The shift to take the voters' opinion seriously and find solutions to their problems in the parliament is still in its infancy in the country," the authors of the report said.

The new 500-strong parliament will face a daunting task of passing the necessary laws to help the country embark on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which can potentially change the course of the Southeast Asian country's economy and governance.

Deputies stand up and sing the national anthem at the opening of the summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on The deputies began their 5-week-long summer session (Photo: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Vietnamese politicians meet regularly and discuss laws

Fish deaths – a case study

A massive environmental catastrophe and the authorities' response to it has proven once again how difficult it is for the government to meet the expectations of the people.

Since early April, hundreds of thousands of dead fish have been washed up on the central Vietnamese coast, damaging the livelihood of the fishermen and local communities.

The government responded to the disaster very late. While it admitted that the fish kill was a major catastrophe and promised to take action, to date the authorities have not explained why the calamity took place.

"Clearly the government was too slow to respond, and the manner of its response created the sense among the people that it somehow downplayed the disaster or even protected some groups associated with the fish deaths," Jonathan London, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, told DW.

The government's sluggish response and bad communication increased suspicions that the fish deaths were linked with a steel plant owned by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company (FHS).

Communications disaster

Within hours after the environmental disaster had struck, reports, videos and even poems about the calamity started circulating on social media. The public's response was in a stark contrast to the state media's coverage of the issue. The government attempted to block Facebook but with little success, as many Vietnamese know how to access the social media sites through proxies.

"It is the latest example of the glaring difficulties the Vietnamese authorities seem to have in communicating with the country's population. What we saw in addition to the environmental disaster was a public relations disaster," London underlined.

The communications failure has continued for weeks. On May 1 and 8, protests against fish deaths erupted in the capital, Hanoi, the southern economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City and some other areas. The authorities responded by arresting demonstrators.

State TV channels first tried to censor the protests, but coverage was later seen all over the media. Security officials claim they have evidence that terrorist organizations are exploiting the fish kill issue and mobilizing the people against the state. Authorities claim the US-based political insurgency organization Viet Tan is behind the protests.

"The government has sought to discredit the protests. But the Vietnamese people are not buying it," London said.

Need to keep pace with a changing society

The fact that the environmental disaster carries a significant political dimension became clear very quickly. The catchy slogan "Fish need clean water, people need a clean government" emerged on social media and became instantly popular.

Demonstrators, holding signs to protest against Taiwanese enterprise Formosa Plastic and environmental-friendly messages, say they are demanding cleaner waters in the central regions after mass fish deaths in recent weeks, in Hanoi, Vietnam May 1, 2016 (Photo: REUTERS/Kham)

Protests have erupted in Hanoi and other cities

"The environmental concerns are linked with more general governance issues, the Vietnamese politics and economic governance," said London.

Another controversy, which preceded the fish death disaster, could also have an impact on the parliamentary elections. The government is allowing more self-nominated candidates to participate in the polls - more than the 85 who took part in the 2011 vote. But many candidates were not approved by the ruling Communist Party.

Experts say that if the government wants to boost people's confidence in its policies, it must keep pace with the social developments in the country.

"What the state has not quite realized is that a certain kind of pluralism has taken roots in Vietnam over the years, and it clashes with the Leninist ideology of the Communist Party," London argued. The Vietnamese people are now politically engaged in a way that was not imaginable some decades ago, the expert added.

Analysts also say that the party and the government should stop putting blame on a "perceived enemy" and tackle the country's real problems. They must also set better standards of environmental regulation and get rid of the outdated information ministry, they say.