Democracy in Vietnam Takes Step Back

By Matt Steinglass
17 November 2008

Vietnamese watched the U.S. elections on November 4 with fascination and enthusiasm. But their attitudes toward introducing more democracy in Vietnam are mixed. Last month, the government proposed a pilot program to allow direct elections for some local leaders. But on Saturday the National Assembly rejected the plan. Matt Steinglass has more from Hanoi.

A party hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to watch the results of the American presidential elections attracted dozens of curious Vietnamese.

Do Hoang Anh, who works for an American-funded aid project, said it was the first time she had seen how elections in the United States work.

“For outsiders, not really outsiders but foreigners like me, it is very interesting to watch how the political system in the United States works to have the best candidate for the system,” she said.

Vietnam has its own elections every five years, but the Communist Party is the only legal political party.

Voters elect a National Assembly and local People’s Councils from a list of party-approved candidates.

But the People’s Councils are weak and ineffective. The real power lies with bodies called People’s Committees.

This month, for the first time, the government proposed testing a new idea in dozens of districts.

The proposal was to get rid of the People’s Councils and hold direct elections for the most powerful official in each district, the chairman of the People’s Committee.

Tim McGrath is a governance expert with the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi. He says the plans’ details were unclear.

“At the moment, the People’s Committee is approved by the People’s Council,” he said. “And you remove the People’s Councils at district level and it is really not clear what happens then.”

The proposal did not specify who would be allowed to run for People’s Committee chairman.

Vietnamese lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu says the reforms will fail unless they open the elections more widely.
Vu says the proposal is a strong move toward democracy, but that anyone who wants to should be allowed to run.

Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer, with the Australian Defense Academy, says the reforms are part of what the government calls “grassroots democracy” measures. Those measures began more than a decade ago, after a wave of protests in Thai Binh province.

“The ruling party and the regime saw that the behavior of local officials, redirecting development funds, raising all sorts of illegal taxes to feather their own nests, caused popular discontent,” said Thayer. “How do you prevent such hot spots from recurring and creating instability?”

The answer is to allow more popular input into government. Thayer says Vietnam may also be imitating reforms in China.

“China is ahead of Vietnam at local levels in directly electing, and Vietnam, although they will always claim they are independent and follow their own course, very closely studies the policies of neighboring countries, including China,” he said.

But the vice president of Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy, Ngo Quy Ngo, says other countries’ experiences teach the Vietnamese to take democratization slowly.

“Foreign investment [is] coming to Vietnam a lot. Because why? Because society is very stable. That is why we look outside, we look to other regions. And we see that when society is not stable, nobody wants to come to do business,” said Ngo. “For example in Africa, and in some countries in Middle East, even in some Southeast Asian countries.”

Ngo says Vietnam is introducing democracy step by step. For some Vietnamese, the reforms do not go far enough.

The director of Vietnam’s Institute for Sociology, Trinh Duy Luan, says more fundamental change is needed.

Luan says moving from a representative democracy to a direct one requires a fundamental change of principles, and he does not see what the principle behind the proposed reform is.

The Communist Party and by the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs approved the reform plan, but on Saturday, the National Assembly rejected it.

National Assembly deputy Dung Truong Quoc says the rejection is almost unprecedented.

Quoc says the deputies voted to go ahead with eliminating the elected People’s Councils in the pilot districts. But the proposal to elect People’s Committee chairmen was postponed. He goes on to say some deputies worried that if the chairman is directly elected, there would be no way to ensure Communist Party control.

That, of course, is the point of democratic governance: to increase popular input, rulers must give up some control. And that appears to be a troubling idea to many in Vietnam’s Communist Party.


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