Is Vietnam Being Ruled By A Diarchy?

Karie Nguyen
Karie Nguyen

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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