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

Karie Nguyen
Karie Nguyen

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?

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.

Opinion-SectionPoliticsElectionpicksVCPVietnamVietnamese Communist Party