Democracy: Friend or Phở*?
A Case for Political Liberalization in Viet Nam
Viet Nam’s 1992 Constitution maintains that it is a state “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. However, on January 20th 2010, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Le Cong Dinh and Nguyen Tien Trung to prison terms of five and seven years for advocating multiparty democracy. The Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV) claims to represent the democratic aspirations of the Vietnamese and have established itself as the vanguard party enshrined in the Constitution, thus making political opposition illegal. Although political expression are in certain degrees allowed, the state’s control over the media and society gives little room for organized critical voices towards the government. Reforms for a market-oriented economy undertaken during the Đổi mới (renovation) in 1986 have contributed to Viet Nam’s rapid economic growth, but questions rise to what extent will Viet Nam further liberalize. This essay would argue why Viet Nam might not liberalize its political sphere in anytime soon, but why in the long run Viet Nam should.
The Dynamics of CPV’s Strong Role in the State
The CPV have laid the foundation of Viet Nam’s state institutions since its independence in 1945 by consolidating its power and gained legitimacy initially through the anti-colonialism agenda and have been successful until now in keeping a political monopoly. London sees the different nuance of authoritarianism carried out by the CPV, how it evolved from running purely Leninist political institutions towards gradually opening spaces for political expression under the umbrella of ‘democratic centralism’ after its market-based economic reforms.
These opening up of spaces are demonstrated by London through the 1996 Law on State Budget that grants provinces greater discretion over local expenditures, the 1998 Decree on Grassroots Democracy which increases the responsibilities of local authorities and their accountability for direct violations of the law, and the emergence of independent candidates for the National Assembly elections. Moreover, to a certain degree, the government have loosened up media control for coverage of corruption cases involving provincial and local officials and the rise of government-approved social organizations. However, if we take into account Kerkvliet’s description of the state-society relations in Viet Nam, these are the culmination of the ‘mobilization-corporatism’ relationship, whereas he emphasizes the role of institutions dominated by the state in mobilizing support for the state’s agenda. Extra-state activities are allowed, as long as the supremacy of the CPV are not questioned.
Given the dominance of the CPV in the state system, it does not mean that it is absolute, as Dixon argues that state-society interactions may alter due to a combination of economic and political reform and its related changes. The next step we should bear in mind is to what kind of changes will prompt the CPV to further liberalize?
Economic Growth and its Growing Inequalities
Over the last 20 years, Viet Nam has shown rapid economic development, with annual growth of GDP averaging 7.1% between 1990 and 2009, and reduced poverty rates from 58.1% in 1993 to 16.0% in 2006. If GDP per capita surpasses $976 this year, Viet Nam have officially become a middle-income country. The current conditions were in dire contrast with the economic conditions before the Đổi mới took place. The rapid erosion of state-socialist economic institutions, the devastating effects of the Viet Nam wars, and the collapse of communist states across Eastern Europe, prompted the CPV leaders at the time to liberalize its economic policies, its household agriculture and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), by introducing foreign investment laws and dismantling its core institutions of central planning. If the party-state didn’t address these concerns, it can lead to a loss of popular support and reduced political legitimacy.
Although in general Viet Nam have enjoyed the fruits of economic growth, those who gained the greater benefits are the ones tied with the CPV elites, as many private businesses are either former SOEs, still have some state ownership, and most are still run by party members. Meanwhile, state policies and practices still stunts the development of a truly autonomous private sector and often makes those who lacked privileged access benefits the least. The case of the rolling blackouts in Viet Nam in June 2010, for instance, is due to the state’s monopoly over electricity. Each month, Electricity Viet Nam (EVN) identifies the quantity of power to be cut in each province, turns the necessary data to the provincial government, deliberates and hands it over to the provincial Trade Department which has the final say on who will receive electricity, and who will not. It is not uncommon that family residences and small local businesses are not on the top of the list.
Questionable government spending, such as the celebration of the millennial anniversary of Hanoi, also raises concerns. If the state continues to make policies which privileges self-maximization over soundness in decision making and principles of transparency and equity, there is no doubt that there will be increased unrest amongst its citizens which in turn will jeopardize CPV’s legitimacy.
Pragmatic Reforms over Ideology
When the Đổi mới was introduced, Viet Nam avoided an economic meltdown by abandoning its socialist-state principles and instead embraced what London calls a market-Leninist approach. These reforms were not driven because of state failures, as Dixon argues, because the CPV-led bureaucracy was still relatively effective in policy formulation and implementation. In short, the CPV was pragmatic in their approach to achieve their main goals: economic development. As Viet Nam continues to grow, if the status quo is already successful in achieving stability for the country, why would it need to change?
I would argue that despite the stability, Viet Nam would need to increase its voice and accountability as a mechanism for checks and balances in the future. Based on the Worldwide Governance Indicators, Viet Nam’s ranking on voice and accountability are among the lowest in Southeast Asia, although slightly better than China. If Viet Nam relaxes its control on the media, it can still be used as a tool for the government to promote stability, but give leeway for them to be able to criticize government policies so the ‘dialogue’ relationship between the state and society as Kerkvliet explained will crystallize. Only by doing so, the party-state will move towards a professional bureaucracy as it is constantly monitored by feedback from its constituencies.
Opening up for organized opposition, although will not happen in the near future, would be the next step. The CPV would gradually need to separate itself from the state apparatus, so the administrative machinery would be independent of any vested interests, including the communist ideology. This is very pragmatic in a sense that if Viet Nam were to achieve further economic growth, it would need good governance and in achieving so, the CPV must become a leading party through real elections, not the path of a totalitarian as General Tran Do, a CPV-dissident, advocated.
As the case for Viet Nam, we should be reminded that political liberalization does not necessarily mean that it should lead to a Western-style multi-party democracy. The CPV can still be dominant, but a greater party-state democratization would mean giving the society, the media, more room to grow and the freedom of expression and association. If the CPV tightens its power, it would only create a backlash as there are potential unrests lying beneath its economic growth. In the long-run, Viet Nam should treat dissent and opposition as diversity, as a mechanism for checks and balances for good governance, economic growth and stability.
*) Author’s note: This essay’s title is a pun for the term “friend or foe”. Phở is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup.