ON Sunday, Communist-run Vietnam will try out a restrained but creeping brand of democracy. Voters will be asked to elect local officials. But something else has been added since the last such poll in 1985: nominations for multiple candidates, plus a bit of campaigning.
Such changes may make the new electoral process less drab than the more orchestrated ones of the past. But there is a catch.
The Communist Party designed an informal rule to make sure that at least half the candidates would be party members, and that no other parties (if they existed) could compete. Two docile parties created by the Communists in the 1940s, the Democratic and Socialist Parties, were dissolved last year.
``This election is just a first step,'' admits Tran Ngoc Chau, executive editor of Youth, a newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) that has pushed for some democracy in Vietnam. ``For now, however, the party leadership has decided to put economic development ahead of a multiparty system.''
Still, the election will involve a number of ``firsts'' for Vietnam. Nevertheless, there has been strong criticism against political ``pluralism'' this year by party chief Nguyen Van Linh.
Shifts toward democracy in some East European nations, as well as violent upheavals in China and Burma involving calls for democracy, have scared the aged leadership in Hanoi, says a Western observer in Vietnam.
One ``first'' in this poll is that it comes under an election law, rather than direct party control. Any adult Vietnamese without a criminal record could nominate herself or himself.
But the general practice was that candidates were chosen by secret or open voting within party-controlled ``fronts,'' such as groups for health workers, women, journalists, etc.
``There's still a tendency to force candidates on the people,'' Mr. Chau says.
And for this election, candidates are required to meet the people in party-arranged meetings, rather than just have their names seen on ballots by voters. Voters have been given better-educated candidates due to a new literacy test for nominees. Observers see this as a sign of the party's increasing willingness to tap the nation's intellectuals. Up to now, many local party leaders held high posts because of their wartime success as peasant guerrillas. The poll will elect new members for local assemblies, known as People's Councils, which have been politically toothless until now. A new law gives the councils tighter control over a day-to-day executive body called the People's Committee.
By design, this new setup should make those elected more accountable to the people. The chairman of both the council and the committee can no longer be the same person, as was possible in the past.
Although Vietnam has not seen the eruption of a democracy movement like those in China or Eastern Europe, talk is lively on reforming the political system. The strongest base is Ho Chi Minh City, whose delegation to the National Assembly helped push through the election law and has also made the assembly itself a lively place by throwing verbal barbs at many government ministers.
The 1986 assembly election was the first one in Vietnam with multiple candidates.
``There's more a tradition of democracy in the city,'' says Tuat Viet, the editor of the Saigon Liberated newspaper. ``The city had a long domination by the French, who allowed more democracy here than in the north. They tried to make it look like a Western democracy.''
Just how many nonparty candidates win could be an indicator of antiparty sentiment in Vietnam.
The party's apparent mismanagement of the economy since 1975 has impoverished Vietnam and led to calls for accountability.
Although appearing sympathetic to the city's desires, party leaders in Hanoi are concerned that a dramatic opening of the political system might erode the party's ``mandate'' to create a socialist society.
The 50 percent rule on party members as candidates is ``good for now,'' says Mr. Viet, ``but it may change once we get used to democracy. Any moves toward democracy must go in step with our new campaign for ruling society by law'' rather than direct party management.
About 80 percent of Ho Chi Minh City's candidates are party members, says city spokesman Nguyen Son, and most of them have higher education degrees or run successful state enterprises.
``Vietnam is not Poland,'' Son says. ``Party members have devoted their hearts and lives for the revolution and the people. Some party members have abused their authority. But the party must still live and work with the people.''
A highly unusual independent ``club of resistance fighters,'' mainly made up of retired party members from the south, was formed in 1983, at first to help the poor. Members of this group now push reforms. Their wartime credentials protect them from being outlawed. Many club leaders advocate a multiparty system. The ``club,'' as it is called, published its own newspaper three times last year, before authorities shut it down.
``Cadres must have confidence in the party and not allow themselves to be enraged with impatience,'' party chief Linh told the club last April. Then, last month, he made clear that ``socialist democracy, by nature, as Lenin put it, is a million times better than bourgeois democracy.''
Such socialist democracy, however, has been redefined for this month's new-style election.