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An Authoritarian Nightmare: The Self-Nomination Movement In 2016

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From left to right, the three independent candidates of 2016: Nguyen Quang A, Nguyen Thuy Hanh, and Do Nguyen Mai Khoi. Sources of original pictures: Unknown. Graphic: The Vietnamese.

“The dream for authoritarian regimes is to reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risks of democratic uncertainty.” 
Andreas Schedler, professor of political science. 

Despite being a one-party state, the Vietnamese Constitution does allow non-party members and self-nominated candidates to compete for the National Assembly election. Because of this, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) often claims that elections in Vietnam are democratic and represent the true will of the people

However, the story is not that simple. 

Self-nominated candidates, especially those who are independent and without affiliation with the VCP, experience extreme hardships in their election races, as the VCP deploys multiple tactics to barricade truly independent candidates from winning elections. 

In 2016, a group of activists, dissidents, and non-party members decided to nominate themselves en masse to run in the National Assembly election. Their objective? Not to win. Instead, they hoped to shed light on the unfairness of Vietnamese elections and the VCP’s treatment of genuinely independent candidates. 

Some media outlets called the phenomenon a “democratic experience.” Some researchers considered it as Vietnam’s one-of-a-kind social movement, in which participants collectively mobilized and presented unprecedented coordination. 

Stanford University post-doctoral fellow Nhu Truong examines the self-nomination movement in her article “Opposition Repertoires under Authoritarian Rule: Vietnam’s 2016 Self-Nomination Movement.” She documents the movement and argues that it happened due to the combination of two factors: the right timing and the common activist interests of the participants. Her research focuses on those who exclusively identified themselves with the movement. 

Nhu Truong is a scholar of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, specializing in authoritarianism and communist regimes. Her article appeared in Cambridge University’s academic publication Journal of East Asian Studies

The Movement 

How did the movement happen? If Vietnam allows non-party and self-nominated candidates, did any similar movements happen before? 

Self-nominated candidates are actually not a new phenomenon in Vietnam because it has been allowed since 1992. State officials have also repeatedly affirmed that discrimination against independent candidates is illegal

However, genuinely independent candidates remain incredibly underrepresented. This is because not all self-nominated candidates are non-party members or without VCP affiliations. The VCP might even back some self-nominated party members to win to appear more democratic. 

Even if we assume all self-nominated candidates are independent and present opposition to the VCP, the number is awfully inadequate. Over the years, less than 1 percent of self-nominees eventually won their election. Non-party delegates in the National Assembly have never exceeded 15 percent. 

Why? Because, like its Chinese counterpart, the VCP has many tactics to manipulate elections to its own benefit. 

The number of self-nominees with valid applications, those who got on the ballot, and those who won the election. Data by Paul Schuler. Graphic by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

Aware of the severe lack of political diversity, a group of activists, dissidents, and non-party members collectively nominated themselves to prove that the electoral system in Vietnam is rigged and discriminatory. 

Unlike self-nominees before and after them, these self-nominees stood out because of their planned collective mobilization. The movement started as the result of a famous civil society activist Nguyen Quang A, who issued a rallying call on Facebook. Nguyen Quang A laid out a rational action plan, including adhering to current legal frameworks despite its shortcomings and establishing collective support groups online for self-nominees to help each other. 

A list of over 30 self-nominated, non-party candidates was then presented on the movement’s Facebook page. These candidates publicly aligned with the movement as well as its slogan “My rights, I exercise”(Quyền ta, ta cứ làm), which stresses the movement’s adherence to the law in Vietnam. 

The list of candidates included many prominent activists and dissidents other than Nguyen Quang A, such as human rights lawyer Vo An Don, who defended exile blogger Mother Mushroom, journalist Nguyen Tuong Thuy, who led an association of independent journalists and recently jailed activist Nguyen Thuy Hanh.  

Unfortunately, all self-nominated candidates who aligned themselves with the movement were eliminated before getting their names on the ballot. Despite getting 100 percent of approval from his meeting with local constituents (one of the steps in the election procedure), Tran Dang Tuan, the former director-general of the state-controlled Vietnam National Television, was later disqualified by the National Election Council. 

The Council did not cite any particular reasons for eliminating him.

In the 2016 election, only two self-nominated candidates were elected. Both of them were VCP members. 

This movement, as Dr. Truong pointed out, might not strictly qualify as a “social movement” in its scientific definition as a “sustained campaign of claim-making” that uses “repeated performance” to advertise the cause, and has a common identity based on “networks, tradition, and solidarities.” It is because the movement lacked a cohesive common identity despite massive coordination and a shared social circle. 

However, this self-nominated movement is still useful to understand the collective political mobilization in Vietnam. 

The Right Timing 

All politicians need good timing in order to broaden their chance of getting elected, especially for non-party candidates running in an election in an authoritarian state. And indeed, the 2016 election presented a lot of opportunities for independent party critics to rise. 

The period leading up to the 2016 election was a particularly bad time for the VCP with a prominent corruption scandal of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that resulted in party elites infighting, and the first-ever vote of no confidence in the National Assembly. The years 2011-2016 also witnessed numerous incidents causing massive outrage, such as the Formosa environmental disaster case, which caused serious environmental consequences and cost human lives. 

This period of time witnessed an “expansion of public criticism,” according to scholar Benedict Kerkvliet. There were protests all over the country, not only because of the Formosa case but also because of the  Hanoi local government’s decision to replace and/or cut down around 6,700 trees for an urban project. There were also nationalist protests, which condemned China’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea and called out the government’s dependence on China. 

At the same time, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement between the United States and Vietnam, which was signed in early 2016, pressured Vietnam to entertain domestic reforms as a part of the deal. TPP also advocated the government to let civil societies participate in policymaking. Activists viewed this as a golden opportunity. 

But good timing and a favorable political climate were not enough to form such a collective mobilization, even though they were indeed important, argued Nhu Truong. The movement was made possible also by the struggles shared between the activists, which motivated them to mobilize together. 

The Common Struggle 

Nationalism, environmentalism, and democratization are the three common activist spheres of those participating in the movement. According to Nhu Truong, those who were concerned with all three spheres of social contention were most likely to join the self-nomination movement. 

This is because those who participated in all three activist spheres were more likely to form a relationship with each other. No one initially thought that they would participate in such a movement, but common advocacy activities allowed them to meet both online and offline, resulting in common social circles that are valuable for collective mobilization.

This linkage was also intensified by the intense usage of social media in Vietnam and later proved to be useful through Nguyen Quang A’s rallying call on Facebook. 

Therefore, the self-nomination movement in 2016 should not be viewed as a separate and impulsive movement, but rather the consequence of years of activism and shared frustration with the VCP. 

Those whose interests intersected were more likely to participate in the movement. Original image: Nhu Truong. Design by Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese. 

The Regime’s Response 

Without a doubt, the regime was not happy with such a movement. There were typical efforts to discredit the movement’s participants via the state-controlled media, by accusing them of “distorting and smearing” the regime and the election, “preparing a coup,” and “being backed by the reactionary press and terrorists.” 

There was only some rare and minimum support from government officials. For example, Vu Trong Kim, the secretary-general of Vietnam Fatherland Front, an organization aligned with the VCP, said that “No one is allowed to create difficulties for the self-nominees, that is against the law.”

All candidates in the movement were still eliminated before getting their names on the ballot, if not by the VCP-controlled local voters then by the VCP-influenced National Election Council. 

But the regime did not stop at simply disqualifying the candidates. Although it did not forcefully suppress the movement, it still monitored and harassed important figures, such as Nguyen Quang A. Notably, he was arrested on his way to a meeting with then U.S President Barack Obama. 

Only two self-nominated candidates won in the 2016 election. Both of them were Party members. Statistics: Nhu Truong. Design: Son Nguyen/The Vietnamese 

In the end, the regime still consistently claimed that elections in Vietnam are democratic because everyone could run for election, regardless of party membership. The self-nomination movement in 2016 proves otherwise. 

Opinion-Section

Panorama of Flags, Panorama of Lies

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A street in Vietnam. Photo: Asia Democracy Chronicles

The panorama of flags

Foreigners visiting Vietnam can hardly miss the abundance of flags, posters, statues, and slogans that remind them of who is leading Vietnam and of the Communists’ “glorious” struggle against the French, Americans, and the South Vietnam regime throughout the last century. 

However, isn’t it a bit too archaic to still flash the symbol of the hammer and sickle these days, when the means of production and the economy no longer rely on these tools? Farmers and factory workers neither drive nor fuel modern-day politics as well. Likewise, what is the point of having the statues of Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Lenin in public parks and in the meeting rooms of schools, universities, and governmental departments? Do ordinary people who showcase the red and yellow flag in front of their houses every April 30 cherish the fact that the country was “reunited” in 1975?[1] Do police officers–who check and remind households that fail to do so–love the flag so much and wholeheartedly believe in the cause? In essence, what is the significance of this panorama of symbols? 

Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual of communist Czechoslovakia and later president of post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic,[2] can point us to the answer.

The panorama of lies

Following the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists. The iron fist of Communist rule drove dissidents out of the country and clamped down on those who remained. Other than the Prague Spring of 1968, an unsuccessful effort to steer Czechoslovakia back towards democracy, there was hardly any resistance. 

However, communist Czechoslovakia was not just about who held the government; life itself had to adjust in a way that fit the current political climate. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who is arguably one of the most respected dissidents in the history of Czechoslovakia, lived most of his life under Communist rule. He grew up to become a playwright, and at the same time, he established himself as a prominent and well-loved politician. A high point of Havel’s dissident writing, The Power of the Powerless, [3] does not concern itself with formal politics; rather, it deals with the “hearts and minds” of the people.

A significant character in The Power of the Powerless is the greengrocer who puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his front window every day, along with his vegetables. He is neither passionate nor concerned about whether or not the workers of the world unite, but he does this anyway. This irony reminds me of my family who obediently and diligently displays the Vietnamese flag at times in the year when they should, but remains so apathetic that they do not even care if the flag is hanging upside down. There also seems to be other households quite similar to my own which led to the government’s legal guidelines (3420/HD-BVHTTDL) that specifically address this violation.[4]

The greengrocer’s act is the observable tip of the iceberg of how the hearts and minds of the people work in communist Czechoslovakia; they want to avoid trouble with those who have power. By displaying the slogan, the greengrocer implies: 

I, greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.  

(Havel, 1978, p. 6)

I am once again reminded of my family. I recall that every time my father was late in hanging the flag, my mother would berate him. She would constantly tell him to do it now because she didn’t want the hassle of dealing with the police. When I asked my parents about this, they said that they just wanted to be “left in peace” (yên thân). Likewise, if you ask teachers, students, or employees of governmental departments about the statues of Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx in their buildings, they would probably tell you something similar.

But, why do the authorities punish such a trivial thing? Whether or not the greengrocer displays the slogan would certainly have little to no effect on the workers’ movement, nor does it pose any tangible threat to the existence of a government that possesses the hard power of the courts, the military, and the police. The greengrocer does not even replace the slogan with another one that is critical about the regime. 

To address this question, Havel points out that, in fact, people would ignore the greengrocer’s slogan, but they do so precisely because such sayings are everywhere – in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletins, and buildings. The key here is that while they ignore individual slogans, the people are well aware of the panorama of these slogans as a whole. The existence of this panorama tells people that dishonesty goes hand-in-hand with obedience here; this is normal, everyone does it, and so must you. In the same vein, transgressions must be punished because “anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself” (Havel, 1978, p. 8). 

Therefore, if a Vietnamese policeman, school administrator, or government official reproaches someone who questions the phrase: “Live, fight, work, and study like our great Uncle Ho” (Sống, chiến đấu, lao động, và học tập theo gương bác Hồ vĩ đại), it is extremely likely that this policeman/school administrator/government official himself has also questioned, albeit in private, the very same slogan! Yet, they also believe that nobody should disrupt the rules of the game and that everyone should blindly follow what the system demands.  

My next question is, how do people live with themselves when their existence is surrounded by so many lies, ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies, including those of their own making? Would they feel embarrassed and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid and thus becoming unquestionably obedient? These questions, Havel argues, boil down to man’s dignity and authentic identity. To be able to live in lies, the greengrocer deludes himself into believing that there is nothing wrong with the workers of the world unite; he separates the part of himself that questions the slogan from the other half that accepts the excuse. Living in a world of lies and deceit for so long warps our perspective and this bastardized reality becomes our “new normal;” the greengrocer becomes accustomed to the state of his compromised dignity and comes to accept the deception and inauthenticity of the system as part and parcel of life. In effect, he loses his authentic self. 

On the question of dignity and identity, it is interesting that the slogan “Sacrifice for the country and serve the people” (Vì nước quên thân, vì dân phục vụ) is hung in every police station, in a country where police, alongside tax officials, are seen as the most corrupt group (Towards Transparency and Transparency International, 2017). A few years ago, when I passed by one of Vietnam’s border checkpoints, I was baffled by the contradiction between the arrogance of the border control officer and the fact that he was sitting right under a “serve the people” banner. My subsequent conversations with poor Vietnamese migrants who often cross the border for work revealed that this was how they were always treated; they often bribed these arrogant officers and kept their heads down to avoid trouble. 

As I listened to these migrants and recalled my own experience, I wondered how these officers could look at themselves in the mirror. They see the “serve the people” banner in their office every day but shamelessly extend their hand through the small window of the checkpoint to receive bribes from the people they look at with disdain – the “lowly” people they are supposed to serve. On the other hand, the migrants are left with little choice but to comply and are forced to accept being treated with less than half the dignity they should be afforded by the simple virtue of being alive.

Furthermore, Havel argues that the panorama of lies is internally solid, for there is a “metaphysical order binding all its components together,” thus “guarantee[ing] the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). Through all the examples I have provided, isn’t there a sense of such order emanating from Vietnam’s panorama of (pseudo) symbols? The checkpoint officers and those who bribe them, my parents’ disinterested flag-hanging, the equally disinterested policeman who checks the flags, and the people who put the statues of Ho and Marx in their meeting rooms are all parts of a system that everyone who lives or has lived in Vietnam knows all too well; it is a system where “the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, [where] the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, […] [and where] the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). 

In fact, one of my interviewees [5] told me that before he left Vietnam and started to look at the country from a distance, life there was quite “smooth” for him, because “things hung together…everything I heard in school, in the newspaper, in the street etc. was in harmony with each other…I didn’t feel the urge to question things.” This “harmony” is the glue that holds the panorama of lies together. Secondly, as my interviewee’s response also points out, this panorama is solid because those who lack the individual will and instead excel in the use of empty phrases are the ones who thrive (Havel, 1978, p. 13). 

Havel thus concludes that “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 9). This conclusion runs contrary to what many intellectuals and laymen alike often think about authoritarianism as entailing an evil ruler and people who are controlled against their will, or a class that oppresses all other classes, and where the line of struggle is between the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of “the panorama of lies” goes beyond such binary definitions and shows that the line of struggle “runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 16-17).      

Conclusion

I work with and observe a wide range of activists who work tirelessly and voice their opinions hoping to one day make Vietnam a liveable country for ALL and not just for those with unearned privileges and unchecked power. They pursue different paths of change; some try to run for seats in the National Assembly, others focus on analysing the actions of the government, and there are those who try to nurture a different kind of Vietnamese. For them, a different kind of Vietnamese means Vietnamese citizens who feel anger when their own dignity, or the dignity of others,’ is negated; they are those who strive for “what should be,” instead of settling for “what is.” They are those who are honest with themselves about right versus wrong, instead of surrendering their own judgement, mindlessly obeying the state and condemning those who do not conform. 

Vaclav Havel and his people saw the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but the democratic miracle did not immediately follow. Havel, then in the position of president, argued that democratic politics and the market economy, both carrying the promise of a good life, cannot happen in the face of “post-communist morass” (Havel, 1997). The ghost that kept haunting post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic was called out in Havel’s speech before Parliament in 1997:

Many people believe that democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good….The prevalent opinion is that it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties – though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words – are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.

(Havel, 1997)

I understand that the different paths of change I mentioned above ultimately feed into each other. However, with the lesson from Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Havel’s thoughts, I cannot help but wonder how best to prioritise these tasks and decide when to pursue which. 

I would also like to believe that Havel’s thoughts give Vietnamese activists hope, especially during the present time when a relentless crackdown makes revolutionary change seem like an utterly unreachable dream. After reading Havel’s work, I see the sparks of our own “Vietnam Spring” starting not in the places representing the power of the system – the National Assembly, the election, state-owned media, or the police – but in the very hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese people. The revolutionary Vietnamese of the present day are those who dare to live in truth.

Bibliography:

  1. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and officially ended the existence of the Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam and South Vietnam were then joined and ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and Hanoi became the capital of the whole of Vietnam. In the narrative of the VCP, April 30 is called reunification day and a cause to celebrate, whereas people who sided with South Vietnam call it ‘Black April,’ amongst other names that convey pain and sadness for the loss of their country.  
  2. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992-1993. Vaclav Havel’s presidency was from 1989 to 2003, with some intervals in between.
  3. To be fair to this great work of Havel, I should be clear that the panorama of lies is only a small part of it. I focus particularly on this concept in order to unpack the omnipresence of (pseudo-) symbols in Vietnam.
  4. I am not saying that all Vietnamese display the red and yellow flag in the same disinterested way as Havel’s greengrocer. We will not know unless we ask every single Vietnamese. However, we can always make an educated guess. In Vietnam, there are pockets of the population who resent or distrust the regime for many good reasons, from the historic 1975 event and family members lost at sea during the Boat People exodus to forced evictions and rampant corruption. Growing inequality and poverty drive young people from rural areas to cities or overseas, and also expose even more the lies about the socialist utopia which the VCP claims it pursues and which it trumpets with slogans and posters in public places.
  5. This interview is part of my PhD research on activism under authoritarian rule in the 2010-2019 period in Vietnam.

References

Havel, V. (1979). The Power of the Powerless. Available at: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/the-power-of-the-powerless/

Havel, V. (1997). Address to the Czech Parliament. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1087560.html

Towards Transparency & Transparency International (2017). 2017 Global Corruption Barometer: Vietnam. Hong Duc Publishing House.

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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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