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Vietnam: Citizens Must Pay Trillions Of Dong For The Party Congress, Regardless Of Party Membership

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The 8 Party Congress (2020-2025 term), Party Bureau of the Bac Ninh Province People’s Committee, February 2020. Photo Source: baotintuc.vn.

By the most conservative estimates, the amount of money citizens pay to fund Party congresses at just the local level is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate running for more than 25 years. 

***

Local party committees throughout the country have begun organizing party congresses to elect “elite” representatives to attend the 13th National Party Congress, an event which occurs every five years. They will elect members to the Party’s Central Committee, from which the Secretariat and the Politburo will be drawn, as well as those positions seen as stepping stones to Vietnam’s top leadership posts. 

However, these strictly party affairs actually draw from the government’s budget, tapping into taxpayer money that could be used for state administration or policies supporting people’s livelihoods. 

This article will summarize a number of counter-intuitive but actual political realities that Vietnamese citizens have faced for decades and will most certainly continue to face if fundamental changes do not occur. 

Total expenditures undisclosed, possibly quite large

Before diving deep into legal issues, we’ll provide a general overview on how budgets are used for Party congresses. Currently, costs associated with organizing Party congresses remain ambiguous. 

The general scope of regulations in the Law on Access to Information excludes transparency regarding the operational finances of political and socio-political groups.

On the other hand, the State Budget Law contains Article 15, which stipulates responsibility for publicizing the state budget.  However, the law only regulates this responsibility in regards to governmental bodies rather than political organizations.

Finding information on the costs of organizing the Party Congress specifically, and the costs of running party organizations more generally, forced me to try my luck with reports from the Ministry of Finance, the state management body directly responsible for the budget and national expense.

Accordingly, we found that the Ministry of Finance established a separate website that was quite easy to navigate and use. However, the detailed budget information provided was not helpful for readers, regardless of what they were looking for. 

Take this example from April 15, 2020:  the Ministry of Finance issued an estimated implementation of the 2020 Quarter I budget, that is, the time period during which finance plans and preparation costs for Party congresses are laid out beginning in May. 

However, the roster of expenditures only lists three accounts: normal costs (the highest, at 343 trillion dong, or US$14.7 billion), interest and debt costs, and salary reform costs. The estimate clearly is of no use to citizens who want to inspect and oversee financial transparency. 

Because of this opacity, I’m forced to look for sources of information at lower levels and with broader scope. Such a manner of research will reduce the ability to generalize regarding the financial “voraciousness” of Party congresses. However, this seems to be the only way to actually get an understanding of such expenditures. 

For example, this past April, official correspondence from the Lang Son Province People’s Committee sent to the Ministry of Finance asked for financial support in organizing the province’s Party congresses for the 2020-2025 term. The amount requested ran upwards of 85 billion dong for these fleeting party events.

More specifically, the provincial People’s Committee requested nearly 10 billion dong for the provincial Party Congress and 66 billion dong for district-level congresses. There were even expenditures totaling more than 10 billion dong to “renovate and repair service projects for the Party Congress at all levels” (these fixed expenses should have been calculated separately according to the law; it is unknown how this is permissible). 

More importantly, it must be remembered that Lang Son is a mountainous and sparsely populated province, with few party members and a cost of living that ranks among the lowest in the country.

In another document that I found from the Quang Tri Township People’s Committee (a district-level body), promulgated on February 28, 2020, the amount of money this committee requested that the provincial Finance Office send to the Central government in Hanoi for approval for its locale reached 5.7 billion dong.

According to the document, money spent to cover the expenses of representatives and guests for the two-day Party Congress at the commune-level alone would amount to almost 800 million dong, propaganda work in service of the congress would be 150 million dong, and money “for direct supplement payment” would be nearly 300 million dong.

Another district, Huong Hoa, requested 2.5 billion dong in funds for district-level Party congresses and 5.1 billion dong for commune-level ones, totaling approximately 7.6 billion dong.

Quang Tri Province has 10 district-level administrative units, Lang Son has 11. The population of Quang Tri is about 600,000 and Lang Son about 800,000; both provinces have among the smallest populations in the country, and both economies perform below the national average.

Therefore, if I use the figure for Lang Son (85 billion dong) as the average for each province, then I can extrapolate that the total costs for organizing Party congresses in all 64 cities and provinces is nearly 5.5 trillion dong, not including the central Party organizations and the National Party Congress. And this is a conservative estimate.

According to the data Luat Khoa Magazine has gathered in previously articles, this amount is enough to keep the Government Inspectorate and the Government’s Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs operating for more than 25 years, with enough left over to fund the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development—one of Vietnam’s pivotal ministries—for up to a year (the 2020 estimate is 5.3 trillion dong.

Laws about the Party’s funding are regulated by the Party’s Central Office.

This is not some kind of sensational headline to attract readers; it’s the truth. 

In the State Budget Law mentioned above, Articles 36 and 38 tell us that both local and central budgets are also responsible for funding the activities of political organizations (i.e. the Communist Party of Vietnam). 

In Items 7 and 8 of Article 8, which covers the state budget’s principles of operation, the operational expenses of sociopolitical-industrial organizations, social organizations, and socio-industrial organizations are handled according to principles of self-sufficiency; the state budget only covers tasks the government assigns. The state budget was created to help political and socio-political organizations balance their operational books. 

That’s the extent of what the State Budget Law says about the Communist Party of Vietnam’s coffers.  

Government Decree 163/2016 provides a bit more detail to the State Budget Law, stating in Article 9 that the government “entrusts the Ministry of Finance to lay out specifics in the management and use of the state budget for Vietnamese Communist Party bodies.”  

The Ministry of Finance’s Circular 40/2017 has regulations on business expenses and conference organizing fees which give us a bit of hope in understanding how the budget is used for Party activities more generally and Party congresses at all levels more specifically, by providing us a legal basis on paper.

But right in the circular, the Ministry of Finance affirms that the use of the budget for “the National Party Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Party congresses at all levels up to the national level, conferences of all bodies under the Vietnamese Communist Party” will be implemented separately according to levels of jurisdiction, but it does not specify which levels. 

So  we’re left to ask, which level or levels of jurisdiction ultimately decide the budget for the Party congresses?

I gradually realized that it was difficult to find any kind of legal basis managing how the budget is used for Vietnamese Communist Party activities.  

The “legal” basis often cited in related documents mostly stems from Decision #99-QĐ/TW, issued May 30, 2012 by the Party Central Secretariat, promulgating regulations on Party business expenses, of Party organizations at the fundamental level and those directly above (“Decision 99”). 

Expenses of all Party congresses up to the 13th National Party Congress this year are regulated by Decision 3989-QĐ/VPTW, issued August 16, 2019 by the Central Party Office. 

As of now, I haven’t been able to find the entire text of Decision 3989, possibly because it was only circulated internally. But this, perhaps, demonstrates best the contradictory manner in which the Vietnamese Communist Party handles budget transparency.

Particularly with Secretariat’s Decision 99, we can see that this document contains regulations that seem to carry more force than even legal documents issued by the National Assembly.

In essence, Party organizations have jurisdiction over establishing and assigning expense estimates, as well as allocating funds and also regulations for balancing the books – all while using the state budget; this decision also regulates tasks by the people’s committees at all levels, as well as other government bodies responsible for ensuring funding for Party activities.

A concrete example in Item 1, Article 5 of Decision 99, states: 

“Based on approved estimates, people’s committees in communes, wards, and townships are responsible for guaranteeing operating expenses at the committee level, must balance the books according to regulations in the State Budget Law, and must report to their committee level and the committee level directly above.”

As such, when speaking of jurisdiction and general scope, documents issued by Party organizations are no less valid than laws passed by the National Assembly or decrees issued by the government.

***

The problems that I’ve expounded on above are not new. They’ve existed in this political system over the whole of Vietnam for more than 40 years. However, when trillions of dong are spent simply for the Communist Party to pick its own board of leaders, then taxpayers all over the country should accelerate discussions on why this phenomenon keeps occurring.  

One budget nurturing two states—how can this be seen as the only way to manage Vietnam’s public finances?

The original Vietnamese version of this article was written by Bui Cong Truc and published on Luat Khoa Tap chi. Translated by Will Nguyen.

Politics

Is Vietnam Being Ruled By A Diarchy?

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Graphics: Luat Khoa.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Y Chan and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 2, 2021. 


The 13th Party Congress ended in Vietnam in February 2021, and the list of the country’s top leaders has finally been leaked after many attempts to keep this information “top secret.”

Yet, despite the confidentiality and mystique surrounding this event, the identities of Vietnam’s new leaders did not catch anyone by surprise because they were also of no particular interest to the ordinary Vietnamese citizen. 

The names of Vietnam’s top four leaders are Nguyen Phu Trong, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, and Vuong Dinh Hue. 

The rumors also stated that Nguyen Phu Trong would continue to be the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Nguyen Xuan Phuc would be the president of Vietnam. Pham Minh Chinh would be the prime minister, and Vuong Dinh Hue would be the chairperson of the National Assembly. In April 2021, more than a month before the general election of Vietnam, the VCP also announced these top leaders with the same positions that the rumors had spread.

Knowing the country’s top leaders before they could even vote, it is not a surprise that Vietnamese citizens have been more interested in the US presidential elections than their own.

Why is this bizarre phenomenon the case in Vietnam?

The answer lies in the state governance model of a diarchy that restricts Vietnamese citizen representation in government and eliminates all hope of participating in governance.

In Machinery of the Government, which is in Part VI of the book Politics for the Common People by Pham Doan Trang, the meaning of this phenomenon is fully explained.

The 1st Rule: The Party Controls the State; the State is in the Party’s Hands

Part VI begins by explaining the roles, functions, and nature of the three fundamental branches of government in detail.

Doan Trang introduces the models and activities of the legislative, executive, and judiciary arms of countries worldwide. At the end of each section, the author references the situation in Vietnam.

Readers can see that while the tripartite branches of government in democratic institutions are designed according to the principle of independence limited by checks and balances, the Vietnamese model is the exact opposite.

In the legislative branch, we have the National Assembly. In principle, this body is supposed to be the people’s representation, with its members directly chosen by Vietnamese citizens. The National Assembly is supposedly responsible for making laws in accordance with the desires of the people.

To fulfill this function, the National Assembly needs to truly reflect what the people want, with each delegate acting on behalf of the Vietnamese public.

In reality, Doan Trang wrote, “at least 95% of the members of the National Assembly belong to the Communist Party.” The few remaining delegates, she continued, “may not be party members at the time of the election, but they may be admitted to the Communist Party in the future, and they are sympathizers of the VCP.”

With this structure, she concluded that the National Assembly of Vietnam has “deficient actual representation and does not stand for the people at all.” More than that, in effect, the National Assembly’s “ability to supervise and control the executive branch is almost non-existent.”

In terms of legislation, “since the beginning, the law-making program was based on … the undertakings of the VCP, not on the needs of the people.” In other words, according to Doan Trang,  “making laws is only meant to actualize the resolutions of the VCP.”

In the executive branch, aside from the head of state and the head of government, the real “big boss” is the man who holds the title of general secretary of the VCP. The general secretary is the “biggest boss” in Vietnam because he controls the VCP.

Pham Doan Trang described Le Duan, the person who is considered the most powerful general secretary of the VCP. She wrote, “he was not the head of state, nor the head of government. He was just a one-party leader, yet for generations, this general secretary had the power to command the entire political system, in effect, making both the president and the prime minister of Vietnam fade into obscurity from 1976 to his death, 1986.”

The general secretary is not elected publicly, and his identity is even kept secret until the last minute, even though everyone already suspects who will hold the position.

The judiciary branch “has the function of interpreting the law and on that basis, has the responsibility of adjudicating and resolving legal disputes,” Doan Trang wrote in her book. To perform this function well, agencies in the judiciary must be neutral and independent. But this is not the case in Vietnam.

“In Vietnam, the judge must also be a member of the Communist Party,” writes Doan Trang. Yet, you will not find this in any legal document; it is an unwritten law.”

In summary, as Pham Doan Trang has observed, “Vietnam’s political system seems parliamentary in that it has a president who is not the head of government, and the members of the previous government are selected from Congress and appointed by them as well, with Congress being the most powerful body. However, the Vietnamese political system has a distinct characteristic that sets it apart from other parliamentary regimes: it is a one-party system, and the VCP is central to all three branches of government.”

The 2nd Rule: The Military Controls the Government; the Government in the hands of the Military

“Military” is the term used to refer to the armed forces and police of Vietnam.

Doan Trang dedicates chapter VIII of part VI in her book to a discussion of these two forces.

Accordingly, “the military and the police play a crucial role because they deal with national sovereignty. […] Briefly, it can say that the police safeguard domestic sovereignty, and the military protects national sovereignty. Without them, these two important components of a country are impossible to retain. Hence, both the military and the police are essential for every independent nation.”

Doan Trang says that the most critical feature of these forces is “their monopoly and use of weapons and force.”

“In any country, the military and police are assumed to be the only two forces in society that have the right to use weapons and force when necessary,” she writes. “Society assumes that they have the legitimacy to use weapons and violence.”

“Because of this, there is always a tendency for both the military and police to abuse their power.”

The military can build a regime, defend it, or even overthrow it. At the same time, it can also use its power to become the government itself. In a similar vein, Doan Trang also wrote that the police “could dominate the government, intervene in and control the course of policies, monitor every aspect of civilian life, and create a police state or a police government.”

Democratic countries often take a liberal approach to control this potential problem.

Accordingly, Doan Trang concluded that “the constitution and laws of a country must ensure that the military is completely neutral, non-political, or out of politics, and that the military system is under the leadership of the civilian government.”

The military, in this case, she emphasized, “must be loyal to the nation and not to any party or government.” In liberal democracies, this is the way of ensuring that their citizens remain free without the risk of militarization or abuse by state forces.

The criterion for selecting the US secretary of defense is an illustrative example of this approach. Accordingly, the head of the military must be a civilian and not a person serving in any armed forces.

If the person nominated for this position has served in the military, he or she must leave the military beforehand and have been a civilian for at least seven years. In American history, there have been three exceptions to this rule.

The most recent example is that of current US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin of President Joe Biden’s administration. Retired General Austin was only out of the service for four years when he was appointed. General James Mattis, who served in this same position in former President Donald Trump’s administration, also had been retired for just four years when he was appointed.

In these specific cases, US lawmakers unanimously agreed that these appointments should not be seen as a precedent to change this already established rule.

In contrast, Vietnam and other communist states such as China and North Korea address this issue differently. 

Doan Trang wrote in her book that these countries aim to bring about “the radical politicization of the military, towards allowing the ruling party’s ideology to penetrate the army fully.” 

From “instead of loyalty to the nation, the people, and the constitution,” the military is asked to “be loyal to the ruling party and its ideology.”

This approach is accomplished by (1) “granting special privileges to the military and the police, especially the officer ruling class,” (2) “fiercely propagating the ruling party’s ideology within the armed forces,” and (3) “punishing, eliminating, and destroying dissident elements within state forces, while rewarding soldiers who are loyal to the Party.”

This penetration makes the armed forces a powerful tool of the Party in ruling the country. Every aspect of the nation, from security and defense to economic development, culture, and education, every single one has the fingerprints of the military or the police all over them.

As a result, people can no longer distinguish between the military, the police, and the civilian government.

***

The US Supreme Court once stated that the military is a “special society” separate from civilian life, with its own rules, disciplines, and traditions.

The laws and regulations of the military are often incompatible with civil society, but the existence of the military allows for the continuation of everyday life.

However, most people in democratic states are aware that the armed forces should never overwhelm civil society. In communist states where the army governs the people, the nation will inevitably drift towards authoritarianism.

Those in power rely on the armed forces to rule and control the people.

If in the past, Vietnam had the Trung sisters, who helped regain freedom for the people and became queens who ruled together, then today we have a regime of diarchy that restricts the people’s right to proper representation in the government and inhibits them from questioning the power of the ruling party.

The party controls the state, and the state is in the party’s hands. The army controls the government, and the government is also in the hands of the military.

This is why the secret of the party’s leadership is unsurprising to any citizen of Vietnam because the VCP and its general secretary still rule the country today.

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Politics

Vietnam’s Institutional Corruption: Why Nguyen Phu Trong’s “Blazing Furnace” Will Be Meaningless In The Long Term

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Nguyen Phu Trong. Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on October 6, 2020. 


The term burning furnace (đốt lò in Vietnamese) is a frequently used term in Vietnam to describe the anti-graft campaign that Nguyen Phu Trong pledged would eliminate corruption in the country.

After nearly ten years of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) being under the leadership of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, many people seem to be proud that the Vietnamese government has done well in its political task of purging the moral degradation that affects the people’s trust in the Party and the State.

For instance, in the first six months of 2020, Nguyen Phu Trong ordered several investigations of senior party officials: a member of the Politburo, a former member of the Politburo, four current and former members of the Party Central Committee, and 186 other members of the Party who were under the Central Committee’s management. These investigations seem to affect a broad number of Party members.

Big-name politicians such as Hoang Trung Hai, Dinh La Thang, Le Thanh Hai, Nguyen Duc Chung, Truong Minh Tuan, Nguyen Bac Son, and Tat Thanh Cang, all seem to have either been brought to justice, have been reprimanded for their actions, or have lost any chance for a long-term political position in the future. Since the beginning of the VCP’s Doi Moi policy in 1986, it can be seen as one of the unprecedented successes for the Party.

However, after the new Party Congress concluded in early 2021, it immediately became apparent that all of these achievements would have been for nothing if another faction becomes the majority in the Party’s leadership.

If the ruling faction’s victories against corruption under Trong’s leadership have been so triumphant, why are they at risk of falling apart after just one new congress?

Philosophical or social science discussions related to corruption in Vietnam are sparse. On the  rare occasion that they do take place, they are mainly carried out by members of the VCP themselves to serve their interest.

This article will introduce another perspective on anti-corruption science and explain why the “blazing furnace” of Nguyen Phu Trong does not have any significant value over the long term.

The concept itself and the philosophical problems associated with corruption are innumerable. Great philosophers from ancient times, such as Plato and Aristotle, to the more modern era, such as Machiavelli and Montesquieu, all discussed this topic in great detail.

Hence, to prove the lack of current anti-corruption policies in Vietnam, this article will only focus on these two concepts: individual corruption and institutional/systemic corruption.

Individual corruption, in the simplest sense, pertains to the selfish actions of a specific person while they work in public service. Such behavior may involve accepting bribes, abusing power, or giving special consideration to family or friends in government deals, contracts, or bidding.

Personal corruption is at the lowest level in terms of organization and state functions. This concept is often used when corruption is the exception and not the norm of the system.

Because of this, individual corruption can be present in any country regardless of its development and level of democracy. Individual corruption is inevitable, but it is also the easiest to deal with. Several laws, ethical appeals, and judicial campaigns are aimed at limiting or eliminating it.

We can immediately recognize that this is the VCP’s current approach to fighting corruption in Vietnam. However, the success rate of stopping individual corruption greatly depends on stopping this form of government misconduct at this level.

At this point, we need to discuss institutional corruption.

Professor Dennis F. Thompson of Harvard University, one of the first academics who introduced the concept of institutional corruption, suggests that corruption becomes an integral part of a system in three ways:

1. Corruption benefits the system’s survival while at the same time undermining it.

2. Corruption is of an impersonal passive nature.

3. Corruption becomes a phenomenon that can be generalized to the whole society.

However, Professor Thompson was speaking about the political situation in the United States, and it would be difficult to apply his theoretical archetype to Vietnam. That said, his ideas can be used as the foundation for analysis.

Regarding his first point, it can be said that corruption in Vietnam has reached a level of coexistence with the political system because of the close relationship of objective and subjective factors, such as a cumbersome state apparatus, meager wages and benefits, and the overwhelming power of state authority.

The need to align government interests with those of a large population in Vietnam is not something new.

Recently, many people in Vietnam were surprised when the Ministry of Public Security announced that the Civil Defense force and the other grassroots security forces had a combined number of 1.5 million people, equivalent to nearly 1.5 percent of the Vietnamese population. And these 1.5 million people are on the government payroll.

But the story does not stop there. In 2017, official government statistics recorded up to 11 million workers receiving direct salaries from the state budget.

The number of officials at the commune level is stated to be 1.3 million.

Units belonging to the public non-business sector, such as education, health, culture, and sports, have more than 73,600 units and employ 2.5 million people. This is a 14.7 percent increase compared to 2012. The number of political organizations, unions, and associations is at 35,100 units, and they employ more than 237,000 people.

A cumbersome state apparatus keeps the budget in a condition of exhaustion, even though wages and benefits are generally meager. In effect, when people decide to work for the state, they expect something else when they join, and that is power. They can then use this power to generate other sources of income.

A pattern starts to form. People spend money to gain access to the state apparatus. Then, they use this newly acquired power to participate in various corrupt practices, that become an integral part of maintaining and operating the government machinery of Vietnam.

Running for office has also become so popular that the head of the Party Inspection Committee of Hanoi had to admit, “Comrades, now people say less than 100 million dong cannot buy a position.”

Therefore, even though abuse of power, corruption, bribery, budgetary overspending, and the like have become problems and seriously affect the reputation of state agencies, they have become essential in maintaining the existence of the status quo.

Thus, in Vietnam, corruption has gradually become universally accepted into the system. This means that the decision to commit an act of corruption no longer depends on the rationality or morality of an individual. It has become an instinct of those who participate in the system.

This phenomenon has also been argued to have become integral to the Vietnamese political apparatus through many studies by both Vietnamese and international scholars.

For example, in a short study conducted by the Anti-corruption Resources Center, between 2005-2010, 95 percent of the public saw the police force as degenerate and corrupt. The same study also noted that 59 percent of businesses consider the bribes that they have to pay as “additional operating expenses”.

A more recent study by Nguyen Thai Hoa confirms that corruption and informal fees are some of the biggest drivers of developing the informal economy in Vietnam.

There is also no mechanism for citizens and civil society organizations to denounce, criticize, and intervene in an organized manner. The process of dealing with corruption depends heavily on the political will of the local Communist Party’s internal forces. Corruption has become a mindset, a culture, or a thought that permeates the entire Vietnamese society, whether in the public or private sectors.

The above features are consistent with the warnings of Roberto Laver, a guest researcher at the Center for Ethics in Harvard Law School. He said that once corruption becomes ingrained and widespread, the system itself will nurture, or even encourage, corrupt behavior.

Those who do not participate in acts of corruption or abuse of power quickly discover that they cannot survive in such a system and are often left to fend for themselves. They realize that they must sacrifice their values and ideals and compromise if they want any chance of promotion in their chosen career.

Looking back at the “blazing furnace” project of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, from central government to local government, from administrative agencies to non-business agencies, from state-owned companies to party committees, we can finally say with certainty that corruption is no longer just a peculiar phenomenon that revolves around an individual’s morality or behavior. It is a type of cancer, festering and growing at the core of Vietnamese society.

***

Due to the above-mentioned nature of institutional corruption, we have grounds to believe that Nguyen Phu Trong’s blazing furnace will end very quickly.

He can remove one Politburo member or even five Politburo members.

He can arrest 100 or 200 members of the Party Central Committee.

He can even purge all Party members of a city if conditions permit.

But these are merely superficial solutions that fail to address the sickness at the heart of the issue.

The anxiety of the supporters of the blazing furnace movement in the future is not without basis. In the end, the furnace only burns individual corruption.

Yet, the corruption that thrives in the veins of the Vietnamese government itself requires more vigorous efforts to excise. And this is something the Communist Party may never dare to do because it will call for an end to the monopoly of the VCP’s political power in Vietnam and replace the authoritarian regime with pluralism.

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Opinion-Section

Election in Vietnam: The Whims Of The Few Or The Will Of The Masses?

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VCP National Congress, October 2018. Photo: Gia Han / Thanh Nien

This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 4, 2020. 


Regulation 214

On February 2, 2002, Vietnam’s Politburo officially announced Regulation 214 on the Standard Framework for titles of cadres belonging to the Central Executive Committee, the Politburo, and the Secretariat.

Accordingly, the Politburo amended and supplemented specific provisions on the required qualities and capabilities of important internal party positions.

To put it simply, Regulation 214 is comparable to job descriptions and position requirements that we often see in job listings. As for members of the Party Central Committee, Regulation 214 requires them “to be a representative of political courage, ethical qualities and working ability; have the capacity to organize the successful implementation of the Party’s policies and duties.”

If one is a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat, the candidate must be “an official member of the Central Committee for a full term or more; has experienced and completed essential tasks in key leadership positions at the provincial level.”

However, it is worth mentioning that Regulation 214 does not set out specific criteria for certain titles such as the president, prime minister, or chairperson of the National Assembly, all of which are state positions. Theoretically, these are not party positions and are therefore outside the influence of the VCP’s internal politics. 

Regulation 214, however, dictates that the person in the position of State president is required to have “high prestige,” a “solidarity center”, and  “comprehensive, outstanding” talent; while the prime minister must “stand out comprehensively … in strategic planning for socio-economic development, national defense and security, [possess] sensitive thinking, [be] dynamic, decisive”. 

Obviously, it can be understood that the VCP was setting the criteria for its members to consider in order to have a basis for nominating, recommending, voting, and selecting “ideal” candidates for the National Assembly and the People’s Council in 2021.

However, with the electoral mechanism in Vietnam, it is completely understandable that the Party’s Regulation 214 will be used to determine leading positions in the State. However, these regulations still have to be approved by a group of 17 members of the Politburo.

So, are the above rules able to replace the popular vote? Are the Vietnamese people so incapable of choice that they must give authority to the elites (such as the VCP) to choose their leaders?

Một cuộc họp của Bộ Chính trị - Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, tháng 5/2019. Ảnh: TTXVN.
A meeting of the Politburo – Communist Party of Vietnam, May 2019. Photo: VNA.

The political elite

An argument exists to justify the Communist Party’s electoral mechanism. This argument is that the Vietnamese people are not well educated, are easily provoked, and are unsuitable for democratic elections. So, it is better for an elite minority to choose the country’s  leaders; this elite minority is now believed to be the VCP.

Such an argument is found not only in Vietnam but in other parts of the world as well.

For instance,  theories such as technocracy (a model of governance that believes that only experts in certain fields can be elected to corresponding positions in government related to their field of expertise) and epistocracy (a system that assumes only “qualified” citizens with enough information and political authority can vote or run for government) are not really new.

The famous 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill used to support an electoral system based on voters’ caste and professional work. Experts who have complex knowledge and skills get six votes, farmers and merchants get three or four, skilled workers two, and unskilled workers one ballot.

More recently, Jason Brennan in his article The Case Against Democracy also promotes a political environment where only qualified and knowledgeable citizens should be allowed to vote or stand for office.

He writes that most of the political questions in contemporary life have become too complex for common voters to understand; they are too fond of simple answers to complex questions. Worse, he argues that the common people are not only ignorant, but that they also believe that they know more than what they actually do; they even claim that they are right. He believes that this makes their political decisions ignorant and stupid.

Brennan does not propose a voting model based on qualifications and educational levels like Mill, but rather recommends a test of voters’ political capacity before allowing them to vote.

The rules of the VCP electoral mechanism seem to be loosely based on or inspired by these  two aforementioned technocratic and epistocratic theories:

  • Party members are considered “qualified” citizens who make the initial decisions regarding the formation of government through voting among themselves to elect members of the Party Central Committee. Then, the members of the Party Central Committee who are considered “high quality” citizens choose the “elite” members who will sit in the Politburo and the Secretariat seats, and also thoroughly become the state leaders, regardless of the outcome of local popular elections.
  • Meanwhile, the Politburo, which claims its membership to be the technocratic masters, sets the required standards for the new leaders, and then nominates and fills in the state positions for Vietnam. 

The VCP considers this a brilliant method to select the top leaders for the country. But is it?

The defects of democratic elections

Democratic elections are clearly not liked by everyone, and some even find them to be very disappointing. The election of former US President Donald Trump is a very fitting example.

Ông Donald Trump và phu nhân đi bầu vào tháng 11/2016. Ảnh: Getty Images.
Donald Trump and Melania Trump were at voting booths in November 2016. Photo: Getty Images.

During the primaries in the 2016 US presidential election, as many as 50 Republican Party members openly voiced their disapproval of Donald Trump.

Specifically, General Michael Hayden (a four-star general, and former director of the CIA and NSA) said that Trump did not have the right temperament to lead. More specifically, he said that Trump lacked the personality, patience, disposition, knowledge, curiosity, or even the willingness to learn. These qualities, according to Hayden, are needed by candidates to be deserving of the title of president of the United States. 

Using similar language, David French, a writer of The Dispatch, never concealed that he belonged to the “Anti-Trump” movement. He strongly affirmed that personality is essential in being a world leader. A person’s temperament, knowledge, and integrity will shape his or her behavior. And even though the democratic process and expert advisors can help shape and steer a president lacking in these qualities, mistakes can still happen, especially for someone as stubborn as Trump.

In the end, with his victory in the 2016 election, Trump showed that he was well supported by a large number of American voters, regardless of how many critics said that he was not worthy enough or deserving of the US presidency. In fact, during the middle of his impeachment fiasco, Trump’s ratings were not only stable, they also increased.

I will not go too deep in regards to Trump, because his assessment is still very controversial, even among the Vietnamese. However, this entire situation gives us this sliver of truth: people sometimes may vote for unworthy candidates.

ajorities in many countries are dissatisfied with their democracy

The above-listed statistics is rather a detailed study conducted by Pew Research on voter views of candidates for elected positions in the United States, which found that voters did not take into consideration the quality and competency of political candidates.

Only 47 percent said that the quality of the candidates was good, and even less than 5 percent rated the quality and competence of the candidates as very good. The remaining 52 percent had a negative view. As for the presidency, 58 percent said they were not satisfied with the choices they had.

Furthermore, according to Pew, people in democratic countries tend to be dissatisfied with the way their countries operate. The list includes centuries-old democracies such as the United States and Great Britain. In line with this, the people’s opinions of their elected officials are also not high.

For instance, in Greece, up to 90 percent of the population believes that their elected officials do not care about the will, views, and aspirations of ordinary citizens.

Also, more than 58 percent of the US population share this opinion about their own politicians. Even though the indicators of transparency and corruption in the United States have always been evaluated positively by independent organizations, up to 69 percent of respondents agree with the opinion that national politicians are both corrupt and decadent.

In some African countries, democratic elections have turned into a game of those who can spend the most money to rile the mob.

So then, why have most nations in the world still chosen to maintain a universal electoral system? Why has most of the world not surrendered political power to the elites who are allegedly more knowledgeable, educated, and are supposed to have leadership qualities that can help them steer and rule a country? 

Popular elections are still the best method

There is much to discuss about leaders who are chosen by the people, and those chosen by the elite.

The first misconception of those who oppose popular elections is that they think the majority will end up choosing the wrong candidates. In the same vein, they also believe that this choice should be left to the “elite.” They think that this small group of people can accurately decide without being influenced by interest groups, personal preferences, or other hidden agendas. These claims are utterly baseless.

Even Mill himself realized that countries needed to build a system that fully reflected current attitudes in society, and the idea of an administration full of economists frightened him.

For instance, why should a lawyer get three times the votes of a skilled worker when law is such a broad and diverse field? Politics and welfare issues are just small specializations in law and not all lawyers are knowledgeable enough to talk about them, let alone determine the best course of action in a field they may not be trained in.

Regarding Jason Brennan’s voter-competency test model, David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University, identifies that this model just pushes his questions to the starting point and fails to answer any more.

Who will be considered qualified to prepare this test model? College professors? They also have their own political interests and opinions. Economists? They may be talkative on a variety of market rules, but their predictions about the future of the market are often incorrect.

And Brennan, himself a university lecturer, has probably also seen countless students cramming knowledge into their heads just to pass exams.

Proponents of the “epistocracy” model also have to deal with the fact that the educated, and also the elites, are in fact influenced by the crowd and are biased just like everyone else in the world.

As social scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen pointed out: History shows that intellectual groups, elite or not, can be as deviated from political morality and political thinking as anyone else.

There are shortcomings and problems in today’s modern electoral and representative democracy, but this does not mean that it is neither efficient nor just. As in marriage, anyone can choose the wrong partner, similar to how we can elect the wrong person. But with democracy, various checks and balances exist that can help ensure that the system can function as intended. As with marriage, we can get divorced and then marry again. 

And when the people’s decision-making power is taken away, words such as “ability,” “quality,” “elite,” “technocrat,” or “epistocratic” are just flimsy excuses for control.

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