A pop star known for her pink hair and controversial outfit choices is the biggest name on a long list of independent legislative candidates in Vietnam, hoping, through sheer numbers, to force the Communist Party to accept dissidence in the National Assembly.
Mai Khoi announced her candidacy this week on a pro-free speech, pro-women’s rights, pro-LGBT platform. Her message runs directly against much of what the Communist Party represents and, while she can count on name recognition, she tells Agence France-Presse she expects many to struggle taking her politics seriously because of her artistic past.
“The media discussion has centered on whether my views, lifestyle and dress sense are suitable for a member of the National Assembly,” she told the outlet, adding, “I am who I am. Ultimately, I hope people will judge me on the strength of my ideas, not the color of my hair.”
In addition to social issues, Mai Khoi has said she would fight for better food safety regulation against food “full of toxic chemicals from China” and better safeguards for artists and freelance workers.
Mai Khoi’s biggest hit to date is the highly controversial single “Selfie Orgasm,” released in 2014 and seen as a challenge to the traditional norms of Vietnam and the strict culture imposed by the Communist Party. Like much of her music, it celebrates liberated and individualistic youth (Warning: graphic content):
Mai Khoi has used her platform to promote individualism and criticize her country for its cultural risk-aversion. “I think Vietnam has a culture of conformity,” she said in a 2015 interview. “People think that to be different is bad.”
She already appears to be toning down her image for politics, though not her message. In her most-recent interview, Mai Khoi promises to advocate for “gender equality and combating violence against women in the family,” as well as fighting for marriage equality. The images accompanying the piece, however, show a clear attempt to highlight a different side of Mai Khoi: the domestic goddess. The pop star, long criticized for the overt sexual themes of her music, is shown dressed demurely at the side of her husband, the Australian Benjamin Swanton.
Her rallying cry at an event announcing her candidacy was “freedom is the power.”
AFP notes that the Vietnamese government has already begun attempts to keep her off the ballot, delaying the submission of key documents with demands for minor bureaucratic changes. “I can only imagine that this unreasonable request is the result of political interference and an attempt to block my candidature,” she told the outlet. “The outcome of my case will send a clear message to the world about the fairness of the electoral process.”
AFP notes that 100 independent candidates have applied to be on the ballot for the 2016 legislative elections. Independent candidates are those not official members of the Communist Party. Of these, most are self-appointed; the Communist Party often appoints independent as well as Communist candidates to the ballots. The applications to run are being seen as a protest on the iron grip the Communist Party has held on the legislative process for decades, despite Vietnam’s Constitution not allowing for such control.
In addition to Mai Khoi, the election has attracted a host of artists and academics, including stand-up comedian Nguyen Cong Vuong and Dr. Nguyen Quang A, a freelance journalist and tech expert.
Nguyen has celebrated that the list of candidates seeking a spot on the ballot is public, as that will make clear who is rejected and reveal whether there is a pattern of excluding candidates outside of communist control. He considers his own chances of making it on the final ballot “very small,” but the move for independent representation in Congress, generally a victory.
Radio Free Asia notes that, during the last election cycle in 2011, 83 independent candidates filed to be on the ballot. Only 15 were approved, and four were elected.
Vietnamese officials showed more openness to political dissent this week than they had in many years, allowing a public protest against the government of China. The protest, in part, a rally to observe the anniversary of a bloody South China Sea naval battle against their communist allies, featured the chant “down with invasive China” and calls for the Vietnamese government to oppose China’s expansion in the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands. While the Vietnamese government has objected to China’s development of artificial islands and military facilities in the region, it continues to maintain cordial relations with the Chinese, sending an envoy to meet with President Xi Jinping earlier this month.