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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.

Human Rights

When Calls To Free Pham Doan Trang Are Not Enough

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphics: Luat Khoa Magazine.

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on October 10, 2020. 


Every time an activist is arrested, several campaigns for his or her release emerge in response to the government’s persecution of human rights. This method is the oldest, most common, and most familiar form the common citizenry uses to call for justice.

I have been a part of those movements and have even organized several campaigns many times in the past nine years. 

Yet, despite everything, I constantly ask myself if these calls to action actually do any good? “How long am I going to do this,” I ask myself, “and are there any benefits to this or not?” These are just some of the questions that constantly linger in the back of my mind.

Most likely, those arrested will remain in prison; their sentence will be upheld. In fact, the length of the individual’s  imprisonment might even be made longer. Despite all our work, more and more people are still being incarcerated. There has been no change in our laws or institutions, despite all our efforts at home and abroad.

And even if we’re blessed with the smallest amount of luck, those arrested are granted asylum in another country, defeating the primary purpose of our campaigns.

Pham Doan Trang, imprisoned activist, blogger, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa online magazines has put some of my concerns to rest.

“I do not need my own freedom; I need something much more significant than that: freedom and democracy for the whole of Vietnam,” she wrote in a letter on May 27, 2019, her 41st birthday, and while she was on the run from the police. “This goal sounds grandiose and far-fetched, but reaching it is actually possible with everyone’s help.”

Doan Trang wanted this letter to be released to the public only when she was indeed convicted and not when she was merely detained. Eventually, she was arrested and now faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. 

If Doan Trang merely wanted freedom for herself, she had at least two opportunities to attain this in the past. 

The first was after her nine-day criminal detention in 2009. If she was obedient and ceased all her activities regarding sensitive topics and cut all her ties with social elements deemed “anti-state,” she would have continued to live a safe and full life. 

The second was when she studied in the United States and could have chosen a path towards residency or citizenship. In fact, at least three agencies and organizations wanted to sponsor her permanent stay in America.

So, why did Doan Trang choose to return to her homeland? It is because she understands that her freedom means nothing compared to the whole of Vietnam. Vietnam needs people to step up and work for the freedom of everyone. 

Such a concept is simple and easy to understand, yet making it a reality is challenging to attain.

Doan Trang could have chosen to contribute to Vietnam’s fight from the outside as many others, including myself, are doing. Yet, she chose the most complex, most painful, and most difficult way to contribute to the cause. She returned home and faced the problem head-on. She published various works, wrote books, and even taught about democracy and freedom right in front of the police.

Doan Trang often told me that the best way to fight is to be an example, to be an inspiration for others to do the same. Only then can we, as a society, start to see what democracy, human rights, and the rule of law look like in reality. Words without actions are meaningless.

Sadly, I do not know how successful Doan Trang’s efforts have been, nor how many lives have been touched by her words and deeds. But regarding her arrest in October 2020, I would like to say this.

Activists have a saying called “sharing fire,” which means sharing the tasks and responsibilities of dangerous activities with many people to reduce individual risk. Sometimes we coordinate with each other, but more often than not this is not the case; people passively participate in this phenomenon without discussing plans in advance.

What if the deeds Doan Trang had done in the past five years were divided among five or 10 people, would she still have been arrested? More recently, if she had not produced the two Dong Tam reports, would she be in jail right now? 

She often told me that these things are not difficult to accomplish and that there are many people who share similar ideas with her. If so, why are there so few people standing up for what is right? Granted, some people do, and Doan Trang was one of them. Yet because of inaction, apathy, or fear, she and the handful of brave, noble souls like her shoulder the entire risk.  

Many of them will go to jail, while those who are content to watch from the sidelines will get angry again. They will once again clamor for the release and freedom of those imprisoned. But in the end, nothing gets done. Rinse and repeat.

Will we Vietnamese forever play the same old games with the government? Will we continue to sheepishly and ineffectively demand the release of our friends? Then, when nothing gets done, will we once again forget and return to the tolerated normalcy of life in this great prison that the government has made?

Things will be different if more people actively do their part to create social change, just like Doan Trang. Doing so has two advantages.

The first is to “share the fire” with those still fighting to reduce their risk and limit their chance of getting captured. Government resources are limited, and they can only invest in monitoring and controlling a few people. 

Those outside Vietnam can do their part as well. For instance, to write something similar to the Dong Tam Report, we just need to collect data on the internet and conduct interviews online or through the phone. It is not necessary to live in Vietnam physically to accomplish these tasks.

The second is to normalize press freedom, independent publishing, and political activities considered “sensitive.”

When these activities become commonplace, the government will be forced to accept them. This was observed in the past when private businesses were considered illegal. Nonetheless, they continued to operate, and gradually the government had to admit that these establishments were a fundamental component of the country’s economy. Since 1986, the state no longer considers owning a private business a criminal offense. 

For me, the best way to help Doan Trang and people like her is to play a more active role. Eventually, everyone will benefit when the political space expands. No one will ever be arrested or imprisoned again for writing or publishing books. I will no longer have to clamor for one person’s freedom every single time someone gets arrested. I will finally be able to rest. 

Calls for Freedom are good, but they are often not enough. We should release ourselves from the shackles of fear, apathy, and apprehension to actively fight for progress and change.

Doan Trang has completed her mission and the responsibility now falls on our shoulders. Even if she were to be released tomorrow, even if she chooses to stay in Vietnam or decided to leave, the fight continues in each one of us.

And if you love Doan Trang, I implore you to do what she would have done.

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam Should Stand In Solidarity With The People Of Myanmar

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Photo courtesy: Nikkei/Asia

On February 1 2021, the Myanmar military arrested and detained several prominent figures from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar prior to the recent coup. Among those arrested were Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. 

This was followed by a swift declaration of a state of emergency and the entrenchment of  military cronies in the Myanmar government. Min Aung Hlaing, the figurehead of this new budding dictatorship, stated that it was inevitable that the military would seize control; he alleged that last year’s election, which the military resoundingly lost, was fraudulent and that this coup was their way to ensure a smooth and stable transition towards “a genuine and disciplined demoractic system.” The actions of the Myanmar military have been met by both local and international backlash, criticism, and scrutiny despite their attempt to justify the coup.

Unprecedented numbers of Myanmar citizens have gathered to express their disapproval and anger towards the military through constant and relentless demonstrations and protests; some have even been arrested for their participation in these events. Even though the new regime has been attempting to quell these gatherings through the disruption of internet services, limiting telecommunications access, and through the enforcement of curfews, the Myanmar people have hardly faltered – they continue to remain steadfast and resolute in the face of escalating violence by Min Aung Hlaing’s fledgling dictatorship. 

On the international stage, the residents of other nations have organized demonstrations of their own in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Myanmar. Likewise, private citizens, NGOs, and various media outlets have been spreading awareness of the situation and have placed the actions of this dictatorship under the scrutiny of the rest of the free world. Some foreign countries, such as the United States, now under the Biden administration, have imposed economic sanctions to pressure the Myanmar military into compliance. 

The United Nations Human Rights Council, despite the dissenting voices of China, Bolivia, Venezuela, Russia, and the Philippines, has also made several demands of the current ruling power of Myanmar, such as a call for the immediate lifting of the declaration of the state of emergency and the release of all arbitrarily detained individuals.

Justice for Myanmar, a group of undercover activists that aims to improve the lives of all people in their homeland, has recently published a list of people, businesses, and organizations under the control and sway of the military junta. These entities provided the Myanmar military with assets and sources of revenue that aided it in its systemic takeover of the country that further lined the pockets of those in control. 

Justice for Myanmar calls on “the international community to impose immediate comprehensive and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military in response to their Feb 1 coup and their continuing violations of international law, including their campaign of genocide against the Rohingya and war crimes and crimes against humanity in ethnic regions.” 

This published report lists 133 businesses fully or partially controlled by the Myanmar military, the names of 174 directors of those businesses, 112 other businesses which the military gets additional income from, and 32 state-owned enterprises that were formerly under the control of civilian institutions. While a majority of the businesses stated are based in Myanmar, there are a number which operate in other neighboring countries such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan.

Yadanar Maung, the spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar, states that the “brutal and illegitimate Feb 1 coup, is enabled by their business interests. The Myanmar military leadership uses business to enrich themselves at the expense of the Myanmar people and finance their brutal campaigns of repression….” He then adds that several international businesses such as Kirin Holdings and Viettel empowered the Myanmar military and that their continued operation in the country will only serve to further embolden the junta to commit further atrocities against its people. 

With money being an essential factor in the military takeover, one of the most effective ways to aid the struggle of the citizens of Myanmar is through severing relations with those institutions and companies that actively do business with the junta.

In Vietnam, as private citizens in our own country, something as simple as refusing to patronize businesses like Viettel is a start. Those with direct connections to organizations that work with the businesses on the list may take it a step further and call for these groups to distance themselves from the junta. With enough people, we could even petition our government to look into whether or not they actively do business with any of the corporations in the report in a bid to expose and terminate these agreements. 

Yet, something as simple and cliche-sounding as discussing this issue with family and friends serves this purpose as well. 

After all, the situation in Myanmar is not a story in a vacuum, but rather it is one of many tales regarding the struggle of freedom against the ever rising threat of authoritarianism in the world. It is merely one chapter in the anthology of human history, of the conflict between those who persevere for the betterment of all against those who would enrich only themselves at the expense of everyone else. 

As such, the events in Myanmar cannot be willfully ignored, and we have to stand as a unified front against tyranny, selfishness, and deceit. And thankfully, a few exceptions notwithstanding, the rest of the world seems to be on the same page. 

All in all, the Justice for Myanmar report, the words of its spokesperson, and all the corollary information derived from the available facts underscore the reality that this coup was not the result of grave injustice, nor the misplaced nationalistic sentiments of the Myanmar military; it is the result of the callousness and unending greed of those who would willingly choose to set their nation ablaze rather than let power slip from their fingertips through legitimate democratic mechanisms. 

It is the last resort of a delusional group of people destined to fade into the annals of history as nothing more than a footnote in a textbook. Times are changing and the people of Myanmar have spoken. True democracy will come to them in time as it has come to several other nations in the past. And while the fight rages in the streets of Naypyidaw all the way to the alleys of Kawthaung, the united people of the free world stand in solidarity, in kinship, and in brotherhood with the Myanmar citizens in their struggle for lasting democracy and freedom.

In Vietnam, we are hoping that our human rights and democracy activists will also take the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

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Opinion-Section

Watching The US Presidential Election While Dreaming About Vietnam’s Free Election At The Commune Level

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Propaganda in Hanoi to encourage people to vote in the 2016 National Assembly election. Photo courtesy: Baotintuc.vn

This op-ed article was written in Vietnamese by Ly Minh and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on November 6, 2020. The translation was done by Jade NG.

***

Although I am a Vietnamese citizen, I anxiously watched the US presidential election in November 2020. Many of my friends in Vietnam also did the same thing. We eagerly watched every turn of that election as if we were personally voting for our own head of state.

The Vietnamese public’s interest in the US presidential election every four years can be seen through the headlines of our newspapers. The mainstream media updates many Vietnamese readers on every step of the thrilling race to the White House.

Looking eagerly at the news every day about  the US presidential election, I cannot help but wonder whether or not the Vietnamese people earnestly wish to elect their own leaders.

In the political context of Vietnam, I understand that this question is a taboo. Needless to say, everyone knows that the current political regime in Vietnam does not allow the Vietnamese to exercise their voting right as in the United States.

Theoretically, the Vietnamese elect their National Assembly delegates through the National Assembly election once every five years. Then, on behalf of the Vietnamese people, the National Assembly delegates elect our national leaders.

Thus, elections in Vietnam ironically have been going on smoothly, albeit with many predictable results. Surprises rarely happen in those elections. Throughout my own monitoring of the National Assembly elections in Vietnam, I found the saying “the Party selects, the People elect” a very reasonable way to explain the development and the results of elections in Vietnam.

The secret desire of many Vietnamese people, including myself, is to have the freedom to make our decisions and to choose our state leaders, and even the National Assembly delegates who actually represent our voices when deciding the big decisions for the country.

That desire is expressed indirectly by many people through monitoring and discussing the US presidential election, as if we were voting for our own state leaders. A friend of mine lamented on Facebook: “I look at the US election and all I  can feel is pain for the Vietnamese people.”

It is impossible not to feel hurt.

Governance is democratic when each vote of the citizens decides who the leaders will be. Every vote influences the final result. The thrill of the US election right up until the last minute was because those of us who watched the election’s progress could see the importance of each ballot cast by the American voters.

Because each person’s vote is so important, the presidential candidates of the US must find ways to enlist the support of their voters, to specialize their campaigns for each state, to come up with policies that please local voters to gain support for the candidates, and even to try to entice the neutral voters.

Meanwhile, looking back at the political situation in Vietnam, my country’s people have no decisive voice in deciding who will become our leaders. Therefore, in Vietnam, many people are not excited about politics and are not interested in who will become the general secretary, the president of the country, the president of the National Assembly, and the prime minister. It is simply because Vietnamese citizens do not have the right, through their votes to influence the selection of these above positions.

Those who are knowledgeable about politics in Vietnam understand that the Party decides all the leadership positions in the country. Some three or four million members of the ruling Communist Party decide for almost 100 million Vietnamese people. Party members also decide all of the major issues of the country through their secret meetings, where the press is not allowed to cover any news. And the public? The public only knows about the results which are often announced by  Party officials after those meetings.

This is the reality about the Vietnamese political situation that I, a Vietnamese citizen, am forced to accept. But I personally think that many people who also accept that reality do not comprehensively support it.

Of course, I fully understand that some supporters of the current regime would argue that the Vietnamese people have the right to vote for the head of the country through the National Assembly delegates. However, I just want to ask two simple questions. First, do you remember who you voted for in a recent election? Second, do you feel happy when your delegate wins the election or sad when she or he fails?

Having an election such as in the United States is a distant dream for the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, I have only a small dream, which is that our local people can one day elect the leaders of their wards or communes, free and fair, by themselves. Hopefully, my dream will come true soon so that in the future I can proudly tell my children and grandchildren that I have elected our ward president in a past election.

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