Deeply integrated into the global economy, Vietnam is party to many new generation free trade agreements, including with the EU, Japan and the regional CPTPP. Unusually for a country with such a large population, Vietnam ranks fifth among the most open economies in the world, with total trade more than double the size of GDP.
But political reform in the country is uncertain and less visible. Vietnam remains an authoritarian regime with a single ruling party. The party controls the elective body, the government, the judiciary, the media and the surrounding mass organisations. For each the party selects, trains and rotates its apparatchiks to ensure their loyalty to the party.
Economic growth, improving government efficiency and facilitating citizen participation can liberalise a society. In Vietnam, a process of democratisation within the party and society is going on alongside economic liberalisation. The redesign of elective bodies is one of such political reforms demonstrating the party’s increasing efforts to include the people’s voice in political life and to ensure bureaucratic oversight. The party is now experimenting with these changes to see if it is possible to create a functioning representative democracy within a single-party system. If successful, Vietnam will be a rare example of democracy without political pluralism or a multi-party system.
Formally, free elections, a free media, the freedom to associate and the right to express and to demonstrate are granted by Vietnam’s constitution. But while elections in Vietnam have changed little since 1946, elective bodies —particularly the National Assembly (NA) — have been transformed from simply rubber stamp institutions into ones that discuss policy and provide oversight. Although 92 per cent of NA members belongs to the party and 75 per cent serve on a part-time basis, Vietnam’s NA still holds controversial debates, takes the lead in the legislative process and may reject proposals presented by the government, as it did recently with a high-speed railway project.
Live broadcasting of NA question sessions is common practice. Votes of confidence have been introduced to measure the degree of trust that NA members have in the country’s political leadership. Low confidence in a leader may pressure them to improve their performance. If they do not, the party may sanction internal measures forcing them to resign.
At the local level, the party is experimenting with a new government model — the urban government model. It is intended to keep people councils at only the city or provincial level. Elective bodies at district and ward levels will be dissolved. This controversial policy was piloted in 2008 and revoked in 2013. As waves of urbanisation intensify, cities are calling for new government models to fit their urban needs. Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Danang may dissolve the councils at lower levels to reduce the size of the public sector and to simplify bureaucracy.
Local councils are inefficient and redundant. 300,000 deputies are serving in 700 districts and 12,000 wards throughout the country. Three out of four council members work part-time. They do not have time for representative duties and do not appear in council meetings. The council approves the decisions of the local party. For these reasons, dissolution may save money, time and create momentum for imposing accountability on local leaders.
The absence of free elections and a meaningful separation of power between the legislative and executive has led to the inefficiency of local councils. Instead of dissolution, critics argue that the government should reinvent local councils to make them more suitable for representing constituencies and supervising the local government. It is possible to reduce the number of deputies substantially, but deputies must then devote more time to their representative work. At the commune or ward level, local autonomy should be reinstalled. A representative body has always existed in Vietnam’s villages.
The examples of parliamentary reform and dissolution of people councils at the local level demonstrate the ability of Vietnam’s government to adjust and redesign. But the outcomes and sustainability of such experiments are uncertain. There is a possibility that a rule-of-law society may emerge in Vietnam. Driving forces for this transformation include the pressure on the party to reinvent itself and Vietnam’s international commitments which will continue to require deeper institutional reform in terms of good governance and transparency. The Vietnamese people are also becoming more aware of their political rights and are pushing to have them recognised.
Pham Duy Nghia is Professor at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, Fulbright University Vietnam.
(14 November 2019: This article was updated to clarify GDP per capita in PPP terms.)