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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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Vietnam: How Powerful Is The Prime Minister?

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Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. Photo: quochoi.vn

Among the “four pillars,” the position of prime minister possesses both power and prestige.


In the spring of 2021, Vietnam has a new leader: Pham Minh Chinh, a former police intelligence officer and former head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Organization Commission. On July 26, 2021, Pham Minh Chinh, once again, takes his oath to be the prime minister of Vietnam for the next 5 years.

One amongst “four pillars of the imperial court”

In the article “A few things you should know about Vietnam’s National Assembly chairmanship,” we wrote about the formation of the institutional division of power known as the “four pillars,” which includes the general secretary, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairman of the National Assembly.

If the state president and the chairman of the National Assembly, two among four of the most powerful positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party hierarchy, serve as primarily ceremonial positions, then the prime minister has both pomp and power, possessing broad authority in the governing system.

The prime ministership was once a position without any notable power. Before Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s term (1991-1997), previous prime ministers left a very little mark, except for Ho Chi Minh – who served as both state president and prime minister from 1946-1955.

Prime ministers after him, such as Pham Van Dong (1955-1987), Pham Hung (1987-1988), and Do Muoi (1988-1991), all served during periods where the government functioned according to the direction and management of the Party, rather than with tools of the executive branch. The same could be said during periods where Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan had overwhelming individual influence over the Party, causing other institutions and positions, including the prime ministership, to be subservient. 

In the 1980 Constitution, the government was called the Council of Ministers, with the prime minister position changed to the chairman of the Council of Ministers. This was an institution of collective leadership, with the powers of the chairman being minimal. With the 1992 Constitution, Vietnam reverted to the government mechanism in which the prime minister was head, concentrating greater power in his hands rather than practicing collective decision-making as in the past. Vo Van Kiet was the first prime minister to enjoy the new system under the 1992 Constitution.

With the depth and broadness of economic reform, the government’s role in managing national affairs grew by the day to more quickly, effectively, and dynamically respond to domestic and international developments. This increase in authority also served to more adequately address the increasing importance of foreign affairs in the age of globalization. The position of prime minister, thus, became extremely powerful. Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016) is seen as the most powerful prime minister ever and once competed fiercely for the position of general secretary. 

Who elects the prime minister?

Vietnam’s central government is modeled on the parliamentary system, with the central role (theoretically) held by the National Assembly. Constituents elect members of the National Assembly, and the National Assembly elects the government’s leadership figures, including the prime minister. (Obviously, everyone knows who actually “elects” the members of the National Assembly and the prime minister). The prime minister must be a member of the National Assembly.

Normally, electing the prime minister occurs during the first session of the new National Assembly term, after the general election, which occurs after the Party congress. In 2016, the procedure took an unusual turn: the National Assembly elected the new prime minister in the last meeting of its term in April, preceding the general election by more than a month. After the general election, the new National Assembly then repeated the election of the prime minister one more time. Nguyen Xuan Phuc was sworn into office twice in 2016. Pham Minh Chinh also had the same experience in 2021.

How powerful is the prime minister?

The prime minister’s powers are stipulated in Article 98 of the Constitution and Article 28 of the Law on Government Organization (ratified in 2015 and amended in 2019).

As head of state administration, this position has broad authority, from enforcing laws and organizing personnel to proposing and distributing the budget.

As a unitary state, the central government has overarching authority, with the prime minister’s power extending from the center all the way to the provinces and cities.

Outside his separate authority, the prime minister also has general authority over the collective decisions and resolutions of the cabinet.

For more details, please see the two documents described above. Here, we would like to list a few of the prime minister’s decision-making powers to demonstrate just how influential this position is in the economic sphere:

·      Regarding land: has the power to establish a council to assess land usage programs and plans at the national level; approves changes in land usage purposes on rice cultivation fields 10 hectares and above, protected and special-use forest land 20 hectares and above; decides the policy framework for compensation, support, and resettlement in special cases; decides price tables for province-level land in many cases; decides on several cases in which the usage rights for land the state allocates or leases are not auctioned.

·      Regarding investment: has the power to approve investment plans on the scale of airports, ports, oil and gas rigs, large urban areas, industrial zones, and export processing zones; approves investment plans overseas in banking, insurance, stocks, and telecommunications…from 400 billion dong and above, along with other projects involving capital of 800 billion dong and above.

Is prime minister the highest attainable position?

No. In the party power hierarchy, the general secretary remains at the top and is the most powerful position overall. 

There has never been a prime minister who has risen to become general secretary, except for Do Muoi, who was the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Nearly all served only one or two terms before retiring, except Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who served as prime minister and then stepped down to become state president, a much less powerful position. 

This article describes the power of the prime minister, but in actuality, we have only spoken of it in legal terms and in relation to the order of power in the party. The position’s power is also dependent on the individual’s level of influence within the party.

To put it another way, a leader’s power is the sum of his or her institutional power and individual sway. If the system bestows power but the individual leader doesn’t have the ability to wield it properly, then he does not have much power at all. Conversely, the system can bestow limited power, but an individual can exercise influence beyond his institutional limits. 


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 6, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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Vietnam’s State President: The Captain But Not Really A Captain

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State President of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

In Vietnam, the position of state president is like that of a ship captain who completely got separated from the helm.


During his single term as the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc became popular in the news for his words and promises to transform many provinces and cities in Vietnam into “captains,” from “economic captain” to “developmental captain.” Now, he himself has become the captain of Vietnam, as he accepted the position of state president – the legal head of state.

But like many other captains of years past, his position as the “captain” of Vietnam is not what it appears. Yes, he will work from No. 2 Hung Vuong Street in Hanoi’s old French palace that dates more than 100 years, where French governors-general and President Ho Chi Minh once sat, but he won’t have much real power. 

 “The four pillars” and the parliamentary system

The state president is normally drawn from the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party-normally, but not always. The exception is Ton Duc Thang, who succeeded Ho Chi Minh and served from 1969 to 1981. Ton Duc Thang was only a Party Central Committee member. 

In history, the most powerful state president of Vietnam was undoubtedly Ho Chi Minh, who held the position for more than 23 years, from 1946 until he died in 1969. During his years of greatest power, Ho Chi Minh also held the highest leadership position in the Communist Party and the position of prime minister until 1955. Between 1955 and 1960, Ho resigned as prime minister but held onto two other positions within the Party: party chairman and general secretary.

From 1960 onwards, Ho remained the party chairman and state president, but with the rise of Le Duan and his ascension to power, Ho Chi Minh was no longer the center of Vietnam’s political life. From then onwards, the role of state president slowly became largely ceremonial.

Ton Duc Thang, who was not elected into the Politburo, of course, held the position of state president, but he did not have much influence. His successor, Vo Chi Cong, on the other hand, was a member of the Politburo. But at the time, people didn’t call the position “State President,” but rather, “State Council President,” the council being an institution of collective leadership similar to the collective leadership structure of the Council of Ministers; this structure was originally borrowed from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and was incorporated wholesale into Vietnam’s 1980 Constitution. 

It was perhaps the next president, Le Duc Anh (1992-1997), who carved out a noteworthy role for the position of state president when he turned the role into an individual leadership position rather than a collective one. With his powerful influence derived from his time as defense minister, Le Duc Anh, along with General Secretary Do Muoi and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, formed what journalist Huy Duc calls the “tripartite division of power.” At the time, the “four pillars” had yet to take shape clearly; it was not until the leadership transition in 1997 that this was established. 

In actuality, the designation “four pillars” refers to the order of power within the Party. At the same time, the position of the state president in a parliamentary system such as Vietnam’s is a formality that only carries ceremonial value rather than any real power.

What does it mean to be ceremonial?

The parliamentary system is special in that the person who leads the state (head of state) is not the head of the cabinet. For example, in nearly all European countries, the head of the cabinet is the prime minister, who is simultaneously the majority leader in parliament; the head of state is either the president or the king/queen. We can see that Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the United Kingdom all have prime ministers as their central political leaders rather than presidents or kings/queens.

Vietnam is similar. The state president is the head of state, which according to its Constitution is “the person who leads the state, who represents the Socialist Republic of Vietnam domestically and in foreign affairs.” However, the person who leads the state administration is the prime minister, who possesses far-reaching power, as we have analyzed in the article “Vietnam: How powerful is the prime minister?”

The Constitution grants the state president a number of limited powers that do not appear lacking, but in practice, are quite lacking. These powers include promulgating the Constitution, laws, and decrees, abilities that very much resemble veto power over decrees; numerous powers that relate to proposals to the National Assembly to elect or remove individuals from the highest positions in government; and above all, power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

“Commander-in-chief”sounds enormously powerful. But the command of Vietnam’s armed forces has never laid with the state president; it actually lies with the Politburo and the Central Military Commission (CMC). In recent times, the secretary of the Central Military Committee has always been the Party general secretary, while the deputy minister of the CMC has been the minister of defense. The state president is simply a standing member of the CMC. Nguyen Phu Trong has been the only individual to hold both Party general secretary and state president positions while concurrently serving as the secretary of the CMC.  

Thus, the state president does not actually hold any guns. He doesn’t hold the purse strings either, because control of the treasury is held by the prime minister. The authority of the state president, then, lies in approving military promotions, bestowing awards and honors, and deciding on issues related to citizenship, reprieves, and diplomatic protocols, etc.

With limited powers, Vietnamese presidents after Ho Chi Minh have never fully exercised their powers on thorny issues, such as dismissing a number of high-ranking positions in the government and the military or vetoing an ordinance from the National Assembly’s Standing Committee.

Though it has transitioned from a collective leadership role (in the State Council) to an individualized one, the position of state president still represents the collective in announcing decisions and lacks the broad, active powers of the prime minister.

The real power of the state president perhaps lies in the fact that he has his feet in both the Politburo and the CMC. If it weren’t for this straddling, the state president would be merely a puppet. Thus, when examining the actual power of a Vietnamese political leader, it is not enough to look to the law; one must also look at his or her power within the Party and the individual influence he or she has.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc has bestowed the title of “captain” on many provinces and cities as his way to encourage them to develop and prosper, though perhaps these provincial and municipal leaders have yet to understand how they were called “captains.” Nguyen Xuan Phuc now has also assumed the position of head of the ship, but he is also no captain.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on April 7, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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A Few Things You Should Know About Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairpersonship

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Former National Assembly Chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and Current Chairman, Vuong Dinh Hue. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine

Though it is one of the “four pillars” of the Vietnamese government, the National Assembly chairpersonship remains the weakest position.


Vietnam’s National Assembly has been preparing to change its window dressing in late March 2021. No need to wait until the general election wraps up in May 2021; the National Assembly chairmanship had a new occupant in the final days of March. To reaffirm that the election in May did not change Vietnam’s political situation, July 20, 2021 would mark Vuong Dinh Hue’s continuation to serve the same leadership position as the National Assembly chairman for the next 5 years when it re-elected him.

One amongst the “four pillars of the imperial court”

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Vietnamese politics slowly moved beyond the individual leadership model and the overpowering influence of Ho Chi Minh and his successor Le Duan. This, in combination with the economic reform process, led to the gradual development of a new institutional division of power. Over time, supreme power was divided among four positions: the general secretary, state president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly. 

Today, as war has receded into the distance and demands to join the international community grow, the political system functions have begun trending towards laws of the state rather than the directives of the Vietnamese Communist Party. As such, the National Assembly increasingly plays a larger and more dynamic role in the political system.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, when Nong Duc Manh was elected as National Assembly chairman, that a member of the Politburo occupied the position. Before that, Truong Chinh – a Politburo member – served as chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee from 1960 to 1981. Still, as stated above, the National Assembly did not play a large role during that time, though it’s hard to say that its role today is large either.

The National Assembly chairmen after Truong Chinh all worked their way up to become members of the Party Central Committee (such as Le Quang Dạo) or outside the Party Central Committee altogether (e.g., Nguyen Huu Tho).

All National Assembly chairmen from Nong Duc Manh onwards were members of the Politburo. Though its numbers are among the “four pillars,” the National Assembly chairmanship remains the weakest position and must abide by party decisions.

Launchpad to power

Of the five National Assembly chairmen since 1992, two have become general secretary of the VCP’s Central Committee – the highest position in the entire political system: Nong Duc Manh (2001 – 2011) and Nguyen Phu Trong (2011- present).

In stark contrast, the prime minister’s office has been unable to propel its occupant any further. One after the other, Vo Van Kiet, Phan Van Khai, and Nguyen Tan Dung became prime ministers and then retired, failing to make it to the general secretary. The exception is Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who, rather than retiring after serving as prime minister, is set to become state president; that is, he is taking one step down the ladder of party power.

Is the National Assembly chairman the “boss” of the National Assembly representatives? 

No. 

In principle, the National Assembly chairman is simply a member of the National Assembly, with all members being equal and everyone retaining one vote. No representative can force another representative to do his or her bidding. The National Assembly chairperson cannot issue any order to a representative, except for limited powers during work assignments with vice National Assembly chairpersons.

Then what does the National Assembly chairman do?

He or she mainly coordinates the activities of the National Assembly and the National Assembly’s Standing Committee, presiding over meetings and sessions and ratifying adopted constitutions, laws, resolutions, and ordinances.

For more details, please see Vietnam’s Constitution and the Law on National Assembly Organization.

The National Assembly chairman also usually acts as head of the National Electoral Council. This arrangement contains a conflict of interest when a representative (and often also a candidate) organizes elections. In democratic countries, the council must, in principle, be independent of the National Assembly.  

A position almost always reserved for men

Of the 11 National Assembly chairpersons in Vietnam’s modern history, the only woman to serve in this position was Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who held the position from 2016 to 2021. But truth be told, Ngan is the only woman to have ever served as one of the “four pillars.”

Her predicted successor, Vuong Dinh Hue, will carry on the near-exclusive tradition of men being at the helm of the National Assembly.

Hue has served as minister of finance (2011-2012), head of the Central Economic Committee (2012-2016), deputy prime minister (2016-2020), and secretary of the Hanoi party committee (2020-current). He has been a member of the Politburo since 2016.


This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and was previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on March 30, 2021. The English translation was done by Will Nguyen.

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