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Hong Kong’s Next-door Ally

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Photo courtesy: ADN Chronicles

The Vietnamese Magazine would like to thank the Asia Democracy Chronicles under the Asia Democracy Network for kindly giving us the permission to re-publish this article. 

Why Vietnam strongly supports the former British colony’s fight for freedom

Many Vietnamese citizens hold Hong Kong freedom fighters Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow Ting in high regard. The Vietnamese cheer when a government expresses support for the former British colony’s fight for freedom. And they mourn whenever there is a crackdown—or a pro-democracy activist gets arrested or dies.

Many Vietnamese consider Hong Kong’s young activists (from left to right) Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, and Agnes Chow Ting as icons of democracy.

One might ask, why does Vietnam support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? The answer lies in the two country’s shared history and similar political movements.

Bloody battles

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. It’s fair to say that the country’s history is basically one of surviving next to China. After all, Vietnam was colonized by China for about 1,000 years before it finally gained its independence in 938 AD. Most national heroes worshipped as gods in Vietnam today are those who fought China over the past 200 decades, such as Hai Ba Trung (1st century, fought the Han dynasty), Ba Trieu (3rd century, fought the Eastern Wu dynasty), Ly Nam De (6th century, fought the Liang administration), Phung Hung (8th century, fought the Tang dynasty), Ngo Quyen (10th century, fought the Southern Han dynasty, ended China’s 1,000-year domination over Vietnam), Ly Thuong Kiet (11th century, fought the Song dynasty), Tran Hung Dao (13th century, fought the Yuan dynasty), Le Loi and Nguyen Trai (15th century, fought the Ming empire, ended a 20-year domination over Vietnam), Nguyen Hue and Bui Thi Xuan (18th century, fought the Qing dynasty).

Today, some of the most central and important avenues in major cities of Vietnam are named after these national heroes.

In 1979,  Chinese troops invaded Vietnam, waging a two-month bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. This was followed by battles along the borders for another 10 years. Not many countries in the world have had such a long and complicated history with China as Vietnam does. As a result, the anti-Chinese sentiment seems to be deeply rooted in Vietnam’s culture.

Fast forward to today: The territorial dispute over the South China Sea—which also involves Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—is also a factor behind this sentiment. China claims almost all of the area bounded by its nine-dash line. Vietnam claims sovereignty over islands in the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, as well as an exclusive economic zone that overlaps with China’s claims.

In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed in the South China Sea when China’s warships attacked and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers and seized the Johnson Reef. Another battle in recent history was in 1974, when South Vietnam’s navy lost some islands in the Paracel Islands to China’s hands after a bloody battle that left 74 casualties and dozens of others injured. Skirmishes still break out between the two countries, something the Vietnamese frown on.

Vietnam’s long history of battling China spans more than 2,000 years. Its ongoing territorial dispute with the latter over the South China Sea also explains the Southeast Asian nation’s anti-China sentiment and partly accounts for its support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Amid territorial disputes over these islands, Vietnamese people bear the brunt of China’s economic activity in their country. Poor-quality products from China (electronics, clothes, food, etc.) are being sold in Vietnam, and while people complain about shoddy goods from the mainland, they have not found a way to stop the sales of these goods within their borders. More than 91,500 Chinese workers were also living across the country as of January 2020, sometimes making up China towns and clashing with local people.

A Chinese-built section of Hanoi’s new urban railway “has come under fire after reports of deferred deadlines, cost overruns, and dangers to passers-by from falling materials,” reports the Financial Times. Given these trouble at sea, some people even suspect China of wanting to destroy Vietnam’s economy.

Pro-democracy sentiment

Although Vietnam is no longer a communist country and has a market-driven economy, the Communist Party remains the only legal political party. The party requires all Vietnamese to study communism and to worship communist leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin.

The society created by the communist regime is marked by corruption and inequality. Yet by an ironic twist of fate, it saved the Vietnamese people from the starvation that the party itself created before it began an economic reform program called Doi Moi in 1986. It abandoned the centrally planned economy model to open up the country to private businesses and foreign investments – a system which it eventually called the “socialist-oriented market economy”. Although Vietnamese people acknowledge that the country has improved significantly economically, severe corruption and deep inequality are among the biggest threats to the regime’s legitimacy. Vietnamese people are well aware that bad governance is the root cause of a slew of major challenges afflicting their lives such as unsafe food, land disputes, low wages, heavy pollution, low-quality education and healthcare, poor infrastructure, wrongful convictions, and a wide range of other human rights abuses.

The state of public governance in Vietnam is similar to China’s – a combination of a communist one-party rule that suppresses human rights and a party-controlled market economy that favors members and sympathizers of the party. It is a system that puts a premium on economic development at the expense of fundamental freedoms.

But while the pro-democracy bias may seem to overlap with the anti-communist sentiment, these are not exactly the same for Vietnamese people. Some of them oppose the communist regime but embrace other authoritarians at the same time. Many Vietnamese admire South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who was known for his authoritarian leadership style. This, while they lean toward democratization and support democratic movements such as the ones in Hong Kong, Burma, and Venezuela.

Mass movements

Mass protests introduced a radical change in a repressive regime like Vietnam. More than 30 years after the Vietnam War, joining a mass protest had been taboo in Vietnam, with the attendant risk of going to jail for decades. Few people dared to gather in the streets. Society had been frozen by fear.”

However, reports that China established administrative units in disputed areas in the South China Sea in late 2007 angered the Vietnamese public. Suddenly, mass protests against the Chinese government broke out in the capital city, Hanoi. More protests followed in Ho Chi Minh City in early 2008.

This confused the Communist Party. They had dealt with protests before, but those involved economic issues. These protests were about protecting the country’s territorial integrity, which was at the core of the nationalism that the party had spent its whole history building. Decades of fighting—from the independence struggle with the French before 1945, the Dien Bien Phu victory in 1954, the Vietnam war with the United States, and 10 years of conflict with China starting in 1979—helped build the communist party’s legitimacy.

Eventually, the party cracked down on the protests. Party members could not tolerate any form of social mobilization that could potentially challenge their power.

However, the lamp of freedom had already been lit in the hearts of many Vietnamese. They realized that they must have the right to demonstrate, the right to speech, the right to participate in politics to protect their country, all of which are being suppressed by the Communist Party. For the first time in the country’s history since 1975, Vietnam saw a protest movement in 2011, which lasted for almost three months, from June to August.

In 2014, more anti-China protests flared up across the country, involving not only activists but also workers, farmers, and students, due to China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig to Vietnamese waters. A similar mass movement happened in June 2018 when the Parliament attempted to pass a special economic zones bill that were seen to open up three strategic areas in Vietnam for China.

In 2014, Vietnamese people took to the streets to protest China’s deployment of an oil rig in the disputed South China Sea.

It is significant to note that most of the mass protests in Vietnam for at least the last decade have been anti-China. All protests have been severely suppressed by the government.

Movie magic

The silver screen has also influenced Vietnam’s perspective on Hong Kong. Hong Kong films have been overwhelmingly popular in Vietnam for decades. These include “The Legend of Condor Heroes” (1994), “Detective Investigation” (1995), “Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils” (1997), “Triumph in the Skies” (2003), among others. It’s not easy to find a Vietnamese over 30 years old that has never watched a Hong Kong film or is unfamiliar with Hong Kong film stars.

Beyond movies, Hong Kong is also a popular tourist destination among Vietnamese, especially during summer and New Year’s holiday.

Until the late 1980s, Hong Kong played the role of a “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions and abject poverty in their country following the end of the Vietnam War.  In 1989 alone, more than 300 Vietnamese boat people landed in Hong Kong daily. The peak of the migration wave was when Hong Kong became home to 200,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers.

Supporting the democratic movement in Hong Kong came naturally to these refugees, who feel forever indebted to the now beleaguered city.

Hong Kong served as the “port of first refuge” for Vietnamese people fleeing political persecutions after the Vietnam War.

There’s no doubt that Hong Kong pro-democracy movement fits perfectly into the Vietnamese people’s worldview, which has been shaped by the latter’s long and complicated history of dealing with China and communism, as well as nationalist and anti-government fervor.

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Vietnam’s General Election 2021: A Tale Of Three Players

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Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Nguyen Dan/Vietnam News, Nguyen Phuong Hoa/Vietnam News Agency via AP; Hanoi Times (background). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnam’s general election in May 2021, with the surprise factor of Luong The Huy’s independent candidacy, revealed a political landscape of three major players, namely the government led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, a new generation of regime critics, and those who seem to hope to change politics from within. However, the future for free and fair elections in Vietnam remains grim unless the nature of these players is taken into account and supporters of progressive change in Vietnam adopt the right strategy to address it.  

The Vietnamese Communist Party and its government

In the lead up to and after the May 2021 general election, Public Security News provided a good overview of how the Ministry of Public Security and related governmental agencies “protect” the election. Their actions range from on-site security to the arrests of individuals who are perceived as threats to the fight in cyberspace against international and Vietnamese actors who are critical of the regime and the election. The same can be found in other media outlets under the control of the government, notably Vietnam News Agency’s branch VietnamPlus. 

The fight in cyberspace is intensely ideological. It shows that the government, or more precisely the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), firmly rejects democratic principles and institutions and views them as outright wrong. 

For example, the argument that ‘The VCP must not lead or interfere with National Assembly activities because the National Assembly is a representative of the people’ is labelled ‘hostile’ and ‘reactionary.’[1] This accusation suggests that the VCP does not see anything wrong with leading and interfering with the National Assembly. 

Similarly, Vo Van Thuong, a Politburo member and head of the Central Propaganda Department, praises the role of the media in legitimizing the regime and its ideology while also openly affirming the news sector as being state-led than autonomous.[2] Such treatment of the media is typical of a Marxist-Leninist political system. This strict adherence to this ideology shows that Vietnam’s present-day political leaders retain the same ideological shade from two decades ago.[3]

Anti-VCP forces

On the other hand, the opposing camp has become significantly more diverse than in the post-war era.[4] There is one group that is composed of domestic pro-democracy activists and dissidents. Some of them have been detained in the lead-up to the election, while the rest continue to provide critical analysis of current events on their personal Facebook pages. The level of articulation in these analyses is generally commendable; they boast high readability with no vulgarity and remain consistent in their call for regime change and democratization.  

Another group comprises people in their 20s and 30s who are highly educated and emigrated abroad following their participation in the 2010-2019 protests. This group is concerned with raising awareness about the importance of free and fair elections and voting rights. Like the first group, it is also clear that this younger generation holds an aspiration for a democratic Vietnam. Yet despite this common thread, there is little evidence that collaboration exists between the first and second groups, despite the assertions of Public Security News.[5] 

In addition to the two groups mentioned above, a seemingly large number of middle-aged individuals, both in and outside of Vietnam, hold strong sentiments against the VCP-led government. These people do not hesitate to describe the National Assembly as merely an extension of the VCP. Likewise, they put little faith in the elections as a whole. Understandably, this is the result of the 1975 upheaval, with which the VCP will have to contend, just as much as the spectre of demised South Vietnam will continue to haunt Hanoi.

Team Huy

While the differences and hostilities between the VCP and anti-VCP forces are unmistakably clear, especially in their ideological positions, the much talked about independent candidate, Luong The Huy, and his team of supporters, are the most ambiguous.

First, it is unclear whether Huy will just be another docile National Assembly member if he is elected or if he desires to push for democratic reforms from the inside. Regarding the latter, this seems to be highly unrealistic. Indeed, one Facebook user wrote on her page that she is not convinced that the National Assembly has autonomy or independence from the VCP, and therefore, she will not be voting for Huy.[6]

Second, the very passionate team that mobilised support for Huy comprises individuals close to the registered Vietnamese NGO sector or engaged in relatively safe advocacy. They are distinct from the anti-VCP forces mentioned above; in fact, these individuals and those in the anti-VCP camp rarely talk to each other. 

While observing their ‘Hanoi Will Vote for Luong The Huy? (Hà Nội bầu Lương Thế Huy?)’ campaign, I could not help but think that they did what they did simply because the independent candidate happens to be Huy, who is their close friend or beloved colleague. For this reason, it is also not surprising that Huy’s camp seems indifferent to the plight of other independent candidates; they have expressed neither solidarity nor sympathy for those who have ended up in jail. 

Conclusion

The 2021 election reveals essential lessons for those who want to learn and bring about democratic change in Vietnam. 

First, Marxist-Leninist ideology is still alive and well, as evidenced by the continued dominance of state-led media and the government’s ongoing suppression of critics of the regime. Whether it comes from the heartfelt belief of the communists in Hanoi or it is simply a convenient façade for lack of a better strategy to protect their ruling, democracy supporters, in any case, will have to overcome these ideological hurdles.    

Second, it would be naive to think that Luong The Huy’s candidacy is any indication of a democratic shift in Vietnam’s electoral politics. On the government’s side, the same tactics of silencing, “educating,” and threatening voters against voting for Huy were carried out by cyber forces on the eve of the election. 

Huy and his supporters may have made a portion of Vietnamese youth pay attention to electoral politics, which is commendable due to widespread political apathy in Vietnam. However, in the larger scheme of things, “Team Huy” is, for the most part, a result of the fondness for him as an individual and typical of how Vietnamese NGOs go about politics. 

At any rate, “Team Huy” has not sparked a push for free and fair elections in the future in Vietnam. Instead, hope should be placed on those who have been tempered in the fire of the 2010-2019 protest decade. These people know where they stand and what they are dealing with; they have perseveringly worked to share their dream of free and fair elections with the Vietnamese public.      

Bibliography:

[1] Vo, N. T. (2021, May 17). “Nêu cao nhận thức bầu cử, ngăn chặn các luận điệu sai trái.” Công an Nhân dân Online. http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Neu-cao-nhan-thuc-bau-cu-ngan-chan-cac-luan-dieu-sai-trai-641545/

[2] (2021, Jan 1). “Báo chí góp phần củng cố niềm tin, khơi dậy ý chí tự lực tự cường’” TTXVN/Vietnam+. https://www.vietnamplus.vn/bao-chi-gop-phan-cung-co-niem-tin-khoi-day-y-chi-tu-luc-tu-cuong/687380.vnp

[3] Martin Gainsborough (2002)’s article “Political change in Vietnam: in search of the middle-class challenge to the state,” in Asian Survey. In this article, Gainsborough cites the example of former General Secretary Nông Đức Mạnh’s assertion that the VCP knows the will of the people, and hence there is no need for opposition, to argue that VCP authoritarianism is rather “heartfelt” and based on “a very different view of state and opposition than that of the West” (p. 706).  

[4] Carlyle Thayer’s (2009) article “Vietnam and the challenge of political civil society,” in Contemporary Southeast Asia.

[5] Mai A. (2021, May 25). “Ngăn chặn, vô hiệu hóa các hoạt động phá hoại bầu cử.” Công an Nhân dân Online. http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Ngan-chan-vo-hieu-hoa-cac-hoat-dong-pha-hoai-bau-cu-642820/

[6] Bui Thuy (2021, May 22). [Photo]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4646369825377746&set=a.542089325805837&type=3

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An Authoritarian Nightmare: The Self-Nomination Movement In 2016

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From left to right, the three independent candidates of 2016: Nguyen Quang A, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, and Do Nguyen Mai Khoi. Sources of original pictures: Unknown. Graphic: The Vietnamese.

“The dream for authoritarian regimes is to reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risks of democratic uncertainty.” 
Andreas Schedler, professor of political science. 

Despite being a one-party state, the Vietnamese Constitution does allow non-party members and self-nominated candidates to compete for the National Assembly election. Because of this, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) often claims that elections in Vietnam are democratic and represent the true will of the people

However, the story is not that simple. 

Self-nominated candidates, especially those who are independent and without affiliation with the VCP, experience extreme hardships in their election races, as the VCP deploys multiple tactics to barricade truly independent candidates from winning elections. 

In 2016, a group of activists, dissidents, and non-party members decided to nominate themselves en masse to run in the National Assembly election. Their objective? Not to win. Instead, they hoped to shed light on the unfairness of Vietnamese elections and the VCP’s treatment of genuinely independent candidates. 

Some media outlets called the phenomenon a “democratic experience.” Some researchers considered it as Vietnam’s one-of-a-kind social movement, in which participants collectively mobilized and presented unprecedented coordination. 

Stanford University post-doctoral fellow Nhu Truong examines the self-nomination movement in her article “Opposition Repertoires under Authoritarian Rule: Vietnam’s 2016 Self-Nomination Movement.” She documents the movement and argues that it happened due to the combination of two factors: the right timing and the common activist interests of the participants. Her research focuses on those who exclusively identified themselves with the movement. 

Nhu Truong is a scholar of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, specializing in authoritarianism and communist regimes. Her article appeared in Cambridge University’s academic publication Journal of East Asian Studies

The Movement 

How did the movement happen? If Vietnam allows non-party and self-nominated candidates, did any similar movements happen before? 

Self-nominated candidates are actually not a new phenomenon in Vietnam because it has been allowed since 1992. State officials have also repeatedly affirmed that discrimination against independent candidates is illegal

However, genuinely independent candidates remain incredibly underrepresented. This is because not all self-nominated candidates are non-party members or without VCP affiliations. The VCP might even back some self-nominated party members to win to appear more democratic. 

Even if we assume all self-nominated candidates are independent and present opposition to the VCP, the number is awfully inadequate. Over the years, less than 1 percent of self-nominees eventually won their election. Non-party delegates in the National Assembly have never exceeded 15 percent. 

Why? Because, like its Chinese counterpart, the VCP has many tactics to manipulate elections to its own benefit. 

The number of self-nominees with valid applications, those who got on the ballot, and those who won the election. Data by Paul Schuler. Graphic by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

Aware of the severe lack of political diversity, a group of activists, dissidents, and non-party members collectively nominated themselves to prove that the electoral system in Vietnam is rigged and discriminatory. 

Unlike self-nominees before and after them, these self-nominees stood out because of their planned collective mobilization. The movement started as the result of a famous civil society activist Nguyen Quang A, who issued a rallying call on Facebook. Nguyen Quang A laid out a rational action plan, including adhering to current legal frameworks despite its shortcomings and establishing collective support groups online for self-nominees to help each other. 

A list of over 30 self-nominated, non-party candidates was then presented on the movement’s Facebook page. These candidates publicly aligned with the movement as well as its slogan “My rights, I exercise”(Quyền ta, ta cứ làm), which stresses the movement’s adherence to the law in Vietnam. 

The list of candidates included many prominent activists and dissidents other than Nguyen Quang A, such as human rights lawyer Vo An Don, who defended exile blogger Mother Mushroom, journalist Nguyen Tuong Thuy, who led an association of independent journalists and recently jailed activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh.  

Unfortunately, all self-nominated candidates who aligned themselves with the movement were eliminated before getting their names on the ballot. Despite getting 100 percent of approval from his meeting with local constituents (one of the steps in the election procedure), Tran Dang Tuan, the former director-general of the state-controlled Vietnam National Television, was later disqualified by the National Election Council. 

The Council did not cite any particular reasons for eliminating him.

In the 2016 election, only two self-nominated candidates were elected. Both of them were VCP members. 

This movement, as Dr. Truong pointed out, might not strictly qualify as a “social movement” in its scientific definition as a “sustained campaign of claim-making” that uses “repeated performance” to advertise the cause, and has a common identity based on “networks, tradition, and solidarities.” It is because the movement lacked a cohesive common identity despite massive coordination and a shared social circle. 

However, this self-nominated movement is still useful to understand the collective political mobilization in Vietnam. 

The Right Timing 

All politicians need good timing in order to broaden their chance of getting elected, especially for non-party candidates running in an election in an authoritarian state. And indeed, the 2016 election presented a lot of opportunities for independent party critics to rise. 

The period leading up to the 2016 election was a particularly bad time for the VCP with a prominent corruption scandal of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that resulted in party elites infighting, and the first-ever vote of no confidence in the National Assembly. The years 2011-2016 also witnessed numerous incidents causing massive outrage, such as the Formosa environmental disaster case, which caused serious environmental consequences and cost human lives. 

This period of time witnessed an “expansion of public criticism,” according to scholar Benedict Kerkvliet. There were protests all over the country, not only because of the Formosa case but also because of the  Hanoi local government’s decision to replace and/or cut down around 6,700 trees for an urban project. There were also nationalist protests, which condemned China’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea and called out the government’s dependence on China. 

At the same time, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between the United States and Vietnam, which was signed in early 2016, pressured Vietnam to entertain domestic reforms as a part of the deal. TPP also advocated the government to let civil societies participate in policymaking. Activists viewed this as a golden opportunity. 

But good timing and a favorable political climate were not enough to form such a collective mobilization, even though they were indeed important, argued Nhu Truong. The movement was made possible also by the struggles shared between the activists, which motivated them to mobilize together. 

The Common Struggle 

Nationalism, environmentalism, and democratization are the three common activist spheres of those participating in the movement. According to Nhu Truong, those who were concerned with all three spheres of social contention were most likely to join the self-nomination movement. 

This is because those who participated in all three activist spheres were more likely to form a relationship with each other. No one initially thought that they would participate in such a movement, but common advocacy activities allowed them to meet both online and offline, resulting in common social circles that are valuable for collective mobilization.

This linkage was also intensified by the intense usage of social media in Vietnam and later proved to be useful through Nguyen Quang A’s rallying call on Facebook. 

Therefore, the self-nomination movement in 2016 should not be viewed as a separate and impulsive movement, but rather the consequence of years of activism and shared frustration with the VCP. 

Those whose interests intersected were more likely to participate in the movement. Original image: Nhu Truong. Design by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

The Regime’s Response 

Without a doubt, the regime was not happy with such a movement. There were typical efforts to discredit the movement’s participants via the state-controlled media, by accusing them of “distorting and smearing” the regime and the election, “preparing a coup,” and “being backed by the reactionary press and terrorists.” 

There was only some rare and minimum support from government officials. For example, Vu Trong Kim, the secretary-general of Vietnam Fatherland Front, an organization aligned with the VCP, said that “No one is allowed to create difficulties for the self-nominees, that is against the law.”

All candidates in the movement were still eliminated before getting their names on the ballot, if not by the VCP-controlled local voters then by the VCP-influenced National Election Council. 

But the regime did not stop at simply disqualifying the candidates. Although it did not forcefully suppress the movement, it still monitored and harassed important figures, such as Nguyen Quang A. Notably, he was arrested on his way to a meeting with then U.S President Barack Obama. 

Only two self-nominated candidates won in the 2016 election. Both of them were Party members. Statistics: Nhu Truong. Design: Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese 

In the end, the regime still consistently claimed that elections in Vietnam are democratic because everyone could run for election, regardless of party membership. The self-nomination movement in 2016 proves otherwise. 

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The Odds Against Your Favor: How Does The National Assembly Election In Vietnam Work?

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Voting booths in Hanoi. Photo: VNExpress

Vietnam has been consistently categorized as “not free” and “authoritarian” by many organizations, such as Freedom House and The Economist. The Economist went so far as to rank Vietnam at the bottom of its Democracy Index in Asia – only ahead of Afghanistan, China, Laos, and North Korea. Annual human rights reports of various human rights organizations, such as The 88 Project, also document the government’s continuous blatant and brutal suppression of political dissent.

One of the most prominent reasons attributed to the country’s abuse of power and authoritarianism? Undemocratic elections. 

Authoritarian regimes around the world often conduct elections to appear more legitimate and democratic. Elections in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, or Cambodia are often performative, as they mostly result in the same people or party holding on to power. Similarly, Vietnam also has elections, but it is hard to call the elections democratic given its methodology and context as a one-party state – which only recognizes the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). 

But how do elections work in Vietnam? Are there non-Party candidates and how do they get nominated? Is the election effective in forming political competition and avoiding the VCP’s monopoly on power? As the 2021 National Assembly election approaches, this article answers these questions using Professor Paul Schuler’s scholarly writing on Vietnamese politics. 

Paul Schuler, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, is a scholar studying authoritarian regimes in East and Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on contemporary Vietnamese politics. His book, “United Front: Projecting Solidarity through Deliberation in Vietnam’s Single-Party Legislature,” was published earlier this year by Stanford University Press. This article is based on Chapter Two, “How Elections Work in Vietnam.” 

What is the electoral system in Vietnam?

The electoral system in Vietnam is a bloc voting system, in which each district is distributed two or three seats in the National Assembly. Each voter can vote for as many candidates as he or she wishes, as long as they do not exceed the number of seats available for their district. 

How do candidate numbers get determined? 

The National Election Council and provincial boards are tasked with overseeing details of the elections, such as the number of candidates and the candidates who appear on the ballot. The Council determines the number per province, while the provincial boards determine the number per district. However, this premature election process is ripe for manipulation. 

Up until 2015, there were no regulations regarding the competitiveness of district elections, meaning there were no laws surrounding the number of candidates competing for a seat. As a result, there were cases of districts with three slots, but only four candidates competing. The 2015 Election Law regulates that the number of candidates per district must be at least two more than the number of seats up for grabs. For example, if a district has two seats available, there have to be four candidates at the minimum. 

The Vietnam National Assembly Standing Committee (VNASC), a combination of those leading the National Assembly, such as the chairperson and his/her deputies, also greatly influences this process. The law allows VNASC to rewrite or amend election law as it sees fit. In fact, Vietnam’s election law has been changed before every election. This gives the VNASC the power to potentially manipulate the election right before it even begins. 

Can people run for election without being a Communist Party member? 

If Vietnam is a one-party state that only recognizes the VCP, could people run for elections without being a member of the VCP? If they can, does that mean there is effective political opposition to the VCP? 

The short answer to the first question is yes. And indeed, the VCP has been using this fact as proof of democratic credibility, claiming anyone could become a delegate. But the story is much more complicated than that because the answer to the second question is no. 

There are two types of candidates that, theoretically, would introduce political diversity: non-party members and self-nominated candidates. While the two categories often overlap (independent candidates who self-nominated such as activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh), they are not the same. The case of Duong Trung Quoc is an example. He was a non-party candidate, but he was nominated by the Vietnam Historians Association, an organization related to the Fatherland Front (an umbrella group of organizations aligned with the VCP).

Here is where the story gets complicated. There is no guarantee that all non-party members and self-nominees will be able to present meaningful challenges to the VCP. This is because there are non-party members who get nominated by organizations related to the Fatherland Front, such as Duong Trung Quoc. There are also VCP members who nominate themselves. Candidates falling under these categories are still counted as non-party and self-nominated members, despite links to the VCP. 

Even if we assume that all non-party members will be able to effectively compete with the VCP, the VCP still retains a great degree of monopoly on power. The percentage of non-party delegates has never exceeded 15 percent. In 2016, despite the surge of independent candidates, the percentage of non-party members in the legislature dropped to 5 percent – the lowest percentage since 1976. And the number of self-nominees is always very small. 

Why is the number of non-party and self-nominated candidates so compromised? This is because of the design of the vetting process. 

How does the candidate vetting process work? 

There are five “gates” in the process of narrowing down the number of candidates. These steps, however, allow possibilities for the VNASC to determine election results as it sees fit – perhaps even before the election starts. 

Participating in the elections, there are two modes of nominations: central nominees and local/provincial nominees. Those nominated by the central government are more influenced by the VCP, and hence, enjoy a more favorable procedure. 

Gate 1: Quota determination for the next National Assembly

This is the initial stage of the election in which the VNASC determines the demographic quota for the next National Assembly – the desired structure of the subsequent National Assembly. 

In 2007, for example, the National Assembly was to include “150 women, 50 non-party members, 70 delegates under forty years old, and 160 incumbents,” according to Paul Schuler. The determination goes as far as imposing quotas on “how many members of the Fatherland Front, the government, and the local party apparatus should be selected.” During this step, the VNASC tasks the provinces with choosing certain provincial candidates to fulfill the quota. 

Hence, this predetermined structure of the National Assembly is criticized for hurting self-nominated candidates, who were not considered for when the VNASC drew up the quota. How do the self-nominees – who might not satisfy the determined structure – fit in? 

Gate 2: Candidate introduction

This is the step in which people submit their self-nomination, followed by an announcement of self-nominees who have successfully completed their applications. In this announcement, candidates nominated by the province in step 1 are called “introduced” (được giới thiệu) candidates, distinguishing from “self-nominated” candidates (tự ứng cử). 

Gates 3 and 4: Meeting constituent and the candidates’ co-workers

This is the step that is considered the “red line” for self-nominated candidates, as it disqualifies many unfavored candidates from competition due to manipulation of the process as well as the underhanded persuasion of public opinion. 

After the introduction of nominees, two meetings are held between the candidates and the local constituents to assess and vote on the candidates. While both types of nominees are required to meet with the voters in their neighborhood, central nominees simply meet with their co-workers in one of the meetings – increasing their chance of passing the round. 

The odds are also stacked against self-nominated candidates as the Party has the power to determine who could present at the meetings, as well as exerting pressure on others not to vote for their unfavored candidate. Indeed, Schuler’s research shows that people with an affiliation to the VCP are 14-22 percent more likely to be chosen for these meetings than those without an affiliation with the VCP. Local officials also conduct door-to-door campaigns to discredit self-nominated candidates if they are not favored by the VCP. 

In other words, the meetings which were supposed to represent the constituent’s democratic will, are actually just occasions and excuses to exclude unfavored candidates. 

Meetings with predominantly VCP supporting voters are considered the ‘red line’ for self-nominated candidates. Table & Data by Paul Schuler. Design by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

Gate 5: The final ballot 

At this stage, reports from the vetting rounds are submitted to the National Election Council, which determines the final list of candidates appearing on the ballot in each province. The list is then sent to the provinces to produce the final ballot. 

Over the years, the number of self-nominated candidates who have gotten on the ballot and won the election has been alarmingly low. Those who got their names on the ballot account for just around 6 to 11 percent of the valid applications. Only less than 1 percent of valid self-nominated candidates eventually were elected (see illustration below). 

Numbers of self-nominees with valid applications, those who got on the ballot, and those who won the election. Data by Paul Schuler. Design by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

(More information about the vetting process and election milestones can be found here.

Are there possibilities for manipulation?

Yes. As explained above, the VNASC has many ways to interfere in the election, perhaps even before the election itself starts. The vetting process, while being presented to ensure the candidates’ qualifications, actually is a way for the VCP to identify dissidents and eliminate them from the competition, paving the way for favorable and conforming candidates.  

Other than manipulating the election to eliminate dissidents, the VCP also manipulates it to safeguard the victory of the people it wants to win. Additionally, for the VCP high-ranking “star” candidates, the election is also a chance for them to fabricate that these officials have the overwhelming support of the people. 

There are several ways this can be done. For example, “sacrificial lambs” could be introduced into the election as candidates. Then, they are placed into competition with the high-ranking candidate, as the provincial authority could decide on the candidates’ placement into different voting blocs. As these “sacrificial lambs” are supposed to lose, the star candidate with name recognition easily wins with overwhelming support. 

This is evident in the 2021 election. Nguyen Phu Trong, the secretary-general of the VCP, and one of the most important figures in the government is placed into competition with a vice-principal of a high school, the head of a Hanoi local government agency specializing in architecture, a researcher in rural development, and a commander of local forces in Hanoi. 

Another way to ensure the star candidate wins is simply to avoid the placement of star candidates into the same race. This is easily arranged, considering the fact that the provincial authorities have the power to arrange bloc placements. 

Is the electoral system in Vietnam democratic? 

This piece has presented the many ways in which the electoral process in Vietnam is  manipulated to the benefit and desires of the VCP. However, there are still rules not mentioned above that restrict the ability of the candidates to campaign and the people’s ability to choose. 

There are some rules about campaigning that are debatably beneficial, such as forbidding candidates to raise funds or use personal wealth to run for office to prevent the monopoly of the rich in politics. However, there are various other restrictions that mostly aim to retain the power of the VCP. For example, candidates are not allowed to organize campaign rallies, and they can only campaign through the state-controlled mass media. They may also meet their voters, but only through meetings organized by the Fatherland Front. 

Even with all of the restrictions, voters only have around a month to get to know the candidates before voting. 

At this point in the article, perhaps you have already formed an opinion or two about whether the system is democratic or not. 

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