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Vietnam’s General Election 2021: A Tale Of Three Players

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Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Nguyen Dan/Vietnam News, Nguyen Phuong Hoa/Vietnam News Agency via AP; Hanoi Times (background). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnam’s general election in May 2021, with the surprise factor of Luong The Huy’s independent candidacy, revealed a political landscape of three major players, namely the government led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, a new generation of regime critics, and those who seem to hope to change politics from within. However, the future for free and fair elections in Vietnam remains grim unless the nature of these players is taken into account and supporters of progressive change in Vietnam adopt the right strategy to address it.  

The Vietnamese Communist Party and its government

In the lead up to and after the May 2021 general election, Public Security News provided a good overview of how the Ministry of Public Security and related governmental agencies “protect” the election. Their actions range from on-site security to the arrests of individuals who are perceived as threats to the fight in cyberspace against international and Vietnamese actors who are critical of the regime and the election. The same can be found in other media outlets under the control of the government, notably Vietnam News Agency’s branch VietnamPlus. 

The fight in cyberspace is intensely ideological. It shows that the government, or more precisely the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), firmly rejects democratic principles and institutions and views them as outright wrong. 

For example, the argument that ‘The VCP must not lead or interfere with National Assembly activities because the National Assembly is a representative of the people’ is labelled ‘hostile’ and ‘reactionary.’[1] This accusation suggests that the VCP does not see anything wrong with leading and interfering with the National Assembly. 

Similarly, Vo Van Thuong, a Politburo member and head of the Central Propaganda Department, praises the role of the media in legitimizing the regime and its ideology while also openly affirming the news sector as being state-led than autonomous.[2] Such treatment of the media is typical of a Marxist-Leninist political system. This strict adherence to this ideology shows that Vietnam’s present-day political leaders retain the same ideological shade from two decades ago.[3]

Anti-VCP forces

On the other hand, the opposing camp has become significantly more diverse than in the post-war era.[4] There is one group that is composed of domestic pro-democracy activists and dissidents. Some of them have been detained in the lead-up to the election, while the rest continue to provide critical analysis of current events on their personal Facebook pages. The level of articulation in these analyses is generally commendable; they boast high readability with no vulgarity and remain consistent in their call for regime change and democratization.  

Another group comprises people in their 20s and 30s who are highly educated and emigrated abroad following their participation in the 2010-2019 protests. This group is concerned with raising awareness about the importance of free and fair elections and voting rights. Like the first group, it is also clear that this younger generation holds an aspiration for a democratic Vietnam. Yet despite this common thread, there is little evidence that collaboration exists between the first and second groups, despite the assertions of Public Security News.[5] 

In addition to the two groups mentioned above, a seemingly large number of middle-aged individuals, both in and outside of Vietnam, hold strong sentiments against the VCP-led government. These people do not hesitate to describe the National Assembly as merely an extension of the VCP. Likewise, they put little faith in the elections as a whole. Understandably, this is the result of the 1975 upheaval, with which the VCP will have to contend, just as much as the spectre of demised South Vietnam will continue to haunt Hanoi.

Team Huy

While the differences and hostilities between the VCP and anti-VCP forces are unmistakably clear, especially in their ideological positions, the much talked about independent candidate, Luong The Huy, and his team of supporters, are the most ambiguous.

First, it is unclear whether Huy will just be another docile National Assembly member if he is elected or if he desires to push for democratic reforms from the inside. Regarding the latter, this seems to be highly unrealistic. Indeed, one Facebook user wrote on her page that she is not convinced that the National Assembly has autonomy or independence from the VCP, and therefore, she will not be voting for Huy.[6]

Second, the very passionate team that mobilised support for Huy comprises individuals close to the registered Vietnamese NGO sector or engaged in relatively safe advocacy. They are distinct from the anti-VCP forces mentioned above; in fact, these individuals and those in the anti-VCP camp rarely talk to each other. 

While observing their ‘Hanoi Will Vote for Luong The Huy? (Hà Nội bầu Lương Thế Huy?)’ campaign, I could not help but think that they did what they did simply because the independent candidate happens to be Huy, who is their close friend or beloved colleague. For this reason, it is also not surprising that Huy’s camp seems indifferent to the plight of other independent candidates; they have expressed neither solidarity nor sympathy for those who have ended up in jail. 

Conclusion

The 2021 election reveals essential lessons for those who want to learn and bring about democratic change in Vietnam. 

First, Marxist-Leninist ideology is still alive and well, as evidenced by the continued dominance of state-led media and the government’s ongoing suppression of critics of the regime. Whether it comes from the heartfelt belief of the communists in Hanoi or it is simply a convenient façade for lack of a better strategy to protect their ruling, democracy supporters, in any case, will have to overcome these ideological hurdles.    

Second, it would be naive to think that Luong The Huy’s candidacy is any indication of a democratic shift in Vietnam’s electoral politics. On the government’s side, the same tactics of silencing, “educating,” and threatening voters against voting for Huy were carried out by cyber forces on the eve of the election. 

Huy and his supporters may have made a portion of Vietnamese youth pay attention to electoral politics, which is commendable due to widespread political apathy in Vietnam. However, in the larger scheme of things, “Team Huy” is, for the most part, a result of the fondness for him as an individual and typical of how Vietnamese NGOs go about politics. 

At any rate, “Team Huy” has not sparked a push for free and fair elections in the future in Vietnam. Instead, hope should be placed on those who have been tempered in the fire of the 2010-2019 protest decade. These people know where they stand and what they are dealing with; they have perseveringly worked to share their dream of free and fair elections with the Vietnamese public.      

Bibliography:

[1] Vo, N. T. (2021, May 17). “Nêu cao nhận thức bầu cử, ngăn chặn các luận điệu sai trái.” Công an Nhân dân Online. http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Neu-cao-nhan-thuc-bau-cu-ngan-chan-cac-luan-dieu-sai-trai-641545/

[2] (2021, Jan 1). “Báo chí góp phần củng cố niềm tin, khơi dậy ý chí tự lực tự cường’” TTXVN/Vietnam+. https://www.vietnamplus.vn/bao-chi-gop-phan-cung-co-niem-tin-khoi-day-y-chi-tu-luc-tu-cuong/687380.vnp

[3] Martin Gainsborough (2002)’s article “Political change in Vietnam: in search of the middle-class challenge to the state,” in Asian Survey. In this article, Gainsborough cites the example of former General Secretary Nông Đức Mạnh’s assertion that the VCP knows the will of the people, and hence there is no need for opposition, to argue that VCP authoritarianism is rather “heartfelt” and based on “a very different view of state and opposition than that of the West” (p. 706).  

[4] Carlyle Thayer’s (2009) article “Vietnam and the challenge of political civil society,” in Contemporary Southeast Asia.

[5] Mai A. (2021, May 25). “Ngăn chặn, vô hiệu hóa các hoạt động phá hoại bầu cử.” Công an Nhân dân Online. http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Ngan-chan-vo-hieu-hoa-cac-hoat-dong-pha-hoai-bau-cu-642820/

[6] Bui Thuy (2021, May 22). [Photo]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4646369825377746&set=a.542089325805837&type=3

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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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