In your own way

Can an Authoritarian Regime represent its People? The Case of Vietnam

Do Ngoc Thao*  

Abstract

In this paper, the author argues that in Vietnam, although the result of the election of the National Assembly (NA) is regarded as transparent and there is no electoral fraud, it is heavily controlled by the Vietnam Communist Party (the Party), thus leading to the misrepresentation of the delegates in the NA. Claiming to represent the interest of the people in the socialist state, the VCP, however, fails to make decisions upon the interests of the people.

Introduction

Authoritarian regimes are organizational complexes built by parties around a set of interests, maintained by vast administrative apparatuses, and legitimated through more or less elaborate ideational, procedural, and coercive means (London, 2014). Vietnam is an authoritarian regime, and has been under the rule of the Vietnam Communist Party for more than 62 years since 1954. Like other authoritarian regimes, Vietnam also has a National Assembly (or National Congress), which is ‘the highest representative organ of the people’ and ‘the main national legislature body of the country’ (Constitution, 1992). However, the autonomy of the NA in implementing its role under the monopoly of power of the Party is always questioned. Since the first post-unification election in 1976, the NA has never vetoed a law, and rarely defeated a Party nominee for a ministerial which only happened twice in its history. In other words, it has been primarily a rubber stamp for decisions already made by the Party or the government.

It has raised the question Is the NA representing the Vietnamese people? If not, who is representing the Vietnamese people. By answering these questions, this paper helps to contribute to the decision-making mechanism of the authoritarian regime, and the internal relative power and even conflicts between different bodies in a one-party regime. Additionally, it helps to understand the responsiveness of the delegates to underlying constituencies, thus contribute to the study of representation in non-democractic setting.

The paper will be divided into three sections. In Section 1, by the adopted representation model, I will explain how the representation works in the authoritarian regime. Section 2 will clarify the mechanism in which the Party and other institutions use to control the results of the elections of the NA. Finally, the section 3 will reexamine the claim of representation of the Party, thus raise the question of claims of representation in the context of one-party socialist regime in Vietnam. The paper will focus on the analysis of the history and operation of the NA in the period from 1992 up to now.

Representation in Authoritarian Regime

Pitkin (1967:221) in his famous book of The concept of representation argued that representation entails regular, institutional responsiveness and can only be discussed in reference to the overall structure of functioning of a political system. This has led to the same conclusions of Western theorists that representation cannot exist with unfree elections (Hu, 1993). Eulau and Karps (1977), however, points out that representation is not as clear-cut as it first appeared, but rather stresses the deputy’s role orientation rather than the relationship between decision-making, roll-call voting and the constituency’s views. Mezey (1983) also draw attention to other components of representation, namely allocation responsiveness, thus, stressed that particularized constituency demands are a common feature of third-world legislatures. These theories have confirmed that the representation did exist in non-democratic regimes. However, to address the differing degree of representation in a non-democractic system and explain how the representation of a given legislature is affected by the political control body, I will use different concepts to expose the internal structure of representation. Based on the analysis of concept of representation in China of Hu (1993) and the similarities of the political system as imposed polities between Vietnam and China, I unpack the three aspects of representation as sense  of representation, willingness to represent, and capacity to represent.

The sense of representation refers to the deputies’ vision on whom they represent, what are their relation with the represented, and what role they should play. The underlying premise is the connection between the interests, demands, and/or preferences of the represented and the representative’s concerns. The willingness of representation is the willing to act on different issues and at different times. The capacity to represent refers to the possibility of the representatives to actually accomplish the role for the represented. It depends on their motivations, capacity, and constraints which may arise. These three aspects closely link to each other, and contribute to the representation of the representatives. The representation, in this meaning, as a compositional phenomenon which falls along a continuum differing in degree of representation levels instead of a breaking-point of misrepresentation.

However, since all these aspects are abstract meanings and hard to measure, I shall operationalize these concepts putting in the particular situation of Vietnam. Malesky (2010), in his empirical analysis of the NA XII (2007-2011) has pointed out three institutional variation that might have impact on delegate responsiveness: (1) nomination procedures, (2) electoral competitiveness, and (3) professionalism. Individual NA delegates are different in terms of (1) whether they were centrally nominated or provincially nominated, (2) faced difficult competition or were guaranteed election through safe seats, and (3) served continuously as full-time delegates or part-time delegates only took part in bi-annual legislative sessions; and holding Bachelor degree or above. The underlying assumption was tested, which are: (1) Firstly, delegates who are provincially nominated are more responsive upward toward national leader or downward to their underlying provincial constituency. On the contrary, the centrally nominated delegates are more dependent on the central party and state for nomination and future nominations, thus, appear less willing to participate, challenge the government and represent their voters. We can connect this aspect with the sense of representation, which is the connection with the represented. (2) Secondly, the delegates who emerge from closely contested elections raised more critical queries of national authorities than those with safe seats. It came from the practices that independent delegates nominate themselves in the NA elections to ask questions about critical issues such as human rights, corruption, etc., which relates to the willingness of representation (3) Thirdly, full-time members have more information and a greater skate in their roles, thus, perform their representative functions more seriously, which relates to the capacity of representation. Data shows that full-time provincial delegates are three times more likely to ask questions and criticize ministers, and twice as likely to refer to their local issues (Malesky, 2010).

Is the National Assembly Representing the Vietnamese People?

In the following section, I choose the NA to assess the degree of representation among the Vietnamese political bodies since it is ‘the highest representative organ of the people and the highest organ of State power’ (Article 69, 2013 Vietnam Constitution). It has two main roles: (1) serve as a representative body of the Vietnamese people, its membership is carefully designed to ensure ethnic minorities, women and the various actors are represented; and (2) exercise exclusive role in passing the laws and overseeing the government, thus, making it as the most powerful body of the State.

The NA has varying seats ranging from 480 to 500 seats depending on each year. The delegates are elected through the elections, and served for a tenure of 5 years. Vietnam has held elections with some level of competition since 1981 and has slowly raised the competition by increasing the amount of candidates-per-seats. Vietnam, like other present and former Communist nations, does not allow other parties to compete in elections. Otherwise, independent and self-nominated candidates are allowed to participate, but these candidates should not be viewed as defacto opposition party.

The results of the elections of the NA since 1992 ensure that most of the components of the society are appropriately represented, including ethnic minorities, women, young person under 40, Party-members, non-Party members, and the representatives from different governmental and Presidential bodies. The table below (figure 1) shows the percentage of the delegates from different career type.

Figure 1: Composition of Vietnamnese National Assembly by Career Type

figure1

Source: Malesky, 2009

The elections in Vietnam have two levels: central level and provincial level. At the central level, the process is seen by the NA Standing Committee (NASC) (Uỷ ban Thường vụ Quốc hội) and a national Election Council (Hội đồng Bầu cử), which is specially formed for the election. The NASC chooses Central Election Board, whose responsibilities involve collecting candidate application form; checking the curriculum vitae of the candidates nominated by the government, the Party, and the military; and overseeing the work of the Provincial Election Committee. At the provincial level, much of the preparatory work for the election is conducted by the Vietnam Fatherland Front (Uỷ ban Mặt trận Tổ quốc Việt Nam). However, the provincial Vietnam Fatherland Front is subordinate to an Election Committee (Uỷ ban Bầu cử), which was also formed at the provincial level. Constituency (Đơn vị bầu cử) election committees are formed to oversee election preparations at the constituency level. Provinces and centrally managed cities are commonly divided into two to four constituencies. Finally, local election groups (Tổ bầu cử) are formed. They are responsible amongst other things, for running the polling stations on election day.

Figure 2 below outlines the five steps to nominations. Each candidate is vetted for the final NA ballot based on a process of three negotiations and two meetings with the candidate’s co-workers and neighbors. 

Figure 2: The five steps to nominations 

Step 1: First Negotiation In the first negotiation, at the central level, the Standing Committee of the Fatherland Front convenes and chairs a meeting to debate the NASC’s proposal for the structure, composition, and number of NA candidates from each organization. The meeting essentially finalizes the “numbers” that will be colored in later during the process.

At the provincial level, the provincial Fatherland Front convenes a meeting, usually attended by chairs of the provincial Election Commission. At this meeting, the participants essentially ratify the structure handed down to them in the previous decision from the central level.

Step 2: Nomination Process and Meetings with Co-workers

 

Based on the quotas decided at the first negotiation, the various party, state, and military offices meet to choose candidates based on the quota allotted to them in the first negotiation. This takes place at the central and the local level. At this time, the co-workers of the nominees also vote on whether or not they support the nominee’s candidacy. Because most of the nominees are from government and party offices, the nominations and the meetings with co-workers appear to happen at the same time.
Step 3: Second Negotiation—Creating the Preliminary List of Candidates In the second negotiation, the Standing Committee of the Central Father-land Front collects all the nominations and submits a preliminary list of candidates to the Central Election Board and the NASC. The same process is undertaken at the local level, except that the results are sent to the provincial Election Commission, which has the additional responsibility of investigating the self-nominated candidates.
Step 4: Meetings with Voters from the Neighborhood The relevant local People’s Committee and Fatherland Front office organize meetings with voters from each candidate’s neighborhood to judge the candidate based on the standards the government sets. The meetings involve between thirty and seventy voters, who decide, either by a show of hands or a confidential ballot, whether or not that person should be nominated.

Participants in these voter meetings make up a small percentage of the total district electorate, which comprises on average roughly three hundred thou-sand voters. At this time the local Fatherland Front also visits the workplace of self-nominated candidates to allow co-workers to vote on their candidacy.

Step 5: Third Negotiation—Create the Final Ballot At the third negotiation, the central and provincial officials finalize the list of candidates, purportedly taking into account the opinions of the local voters and candidates’ colleagues from Steps 2 and 4. Based on this information, they debate the list of nominees before creating the final list of candidates, which is then sent to the Central Election Board.

Source: Malesky, 2009; NA, 2012

 

There are also little evidence that the regime leaders committed any outright electoral fraud, the elections are considered to be transparent and fair (Gainsborough, 2005). Compared to our concepts of representation, the higher number of provincially-nominated delegates compared to the centrally nominated ones, the higher number of delegates in contested elections compared to safe seats, and the full-time candidates is at least 25%, the NA seems to represent the people.

However, in the following section, I will point out, by using its unique characteristics in elections, the Vietnam authoritarian regime is manipulating the election results, thus, exerts its control greatly over the NA.

How the Authoritarian Regime Manipulate Election Results in Vietnam

Firstly, one of the most unique features of the Vietnamese nomination system for candidates is the division between locally and centrally nominated candidates. There are two types of candidates: (1) Candidates nominated by central Party and government institutions (Central Nominees); and (2) Candidates nominated by local electoral commissions, chaired by provincial leaders, and organized by the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF) (Local Nominees). Once the nomination process is complete, the centrally nominated candidates are sent to provinces, where they compete with the locally nominated candidates for the same seats.

In the most recent election on 22 May 2016, of the 870 candidates finally nominated to run, 197 were centrally nominated (meaning that their names were put forward by the central party government, and military organizations and they were vetted by the Central Election Board) and 673 were locally nominated (meaning that they were nominated by local agencies and were subject to vetting by a provincial election board). Local Nominees are always residents of the provinces in which they compete, while Central Nominees can reside anywhere but are generally high-ranking officials living in Hanoi, the national capital.

Although provinces may have discretion in nominating and electing local officials, the Central Election Board makes it clear that it expects the centrally nominated candidates to prevail in elections. The regime is particularly concerned that centrally nominated candidates win because many of them are preselected for leadership roles in the VNA, even before the election takes place. Through the result of election in the NA since 1992, nearly 100% of the centrally nominated candidates won in the selection (except in 2007, 12 centrally nominated delegates were competing in the provincial elections). Here are the two techniques to ensure the centrally nominated candidates won the seats: Firstly, they send the most favoured central candidates to districts with weaker local candidates to ensure that the central leaders win with high percentages. Because provincial commissions control the composition of electoral districts, they can decide to shield preferred candidates by running them against opponents with no political background or education. Or, they could choose to run all candidates in districts with strong competition. Secondly, Vietnam uses block voting, where each district has between four and six candidates in competition for two to three seats, and each voter has as many votes as there are seats. This system means that even weaker centrally nominated candidates should win because they were significantly more likely to be placed by provincial electoral commissions in districts with lower candidate-to-seat ratios (Gainsborough, 2005). Not surprisingly, all high-profile candidates such as the Prime Minister, the President, and the Party secretary all ran in low competition districts.

Secondly, as shown in Figure 3 below, the hierarchies within the NA make the vote of the centrally nominated and provincially delegates unequal. The centrally nominated candidates will be usually full-time assembly members and hold important positions in the NA: chairs or vice chairpersons, thus, have more decisive powers. On the contrary, the provincially nominated candidates are generally part-time, meaning they can just debate the draft laws, but have little influence in amending or drafting them. Even if the provincially nominated candidates are full time, they cannot take the leadership role, but only report back to the NA office.

Figure 3: Comparison between the centrally nominated candidates and provincially nominated candidates

Centrally nominated candidates Full-time assembly members Committee chairs and vice chairpersons
Provincially nominated candidates General part-time Little influence
Full time Not taking leadership, report back to NA office

Source: Malesky, 2009

Thirdly, among the 500 delegates, roughly 10 percent or less are non-Party delegates, suggesting that the Party has high degree of internal control of the NA. In a speech in 2010, Chairman Nguyen Van An asserted that ‘…non-Party members are not necessarily not ‘red’ (Communist). Non-party members can also be red’. This indicates that the 10% of the non-Party delegates is not associated with the representation of non-Party members.

Fourthly, by making the nomination process complicated, they are ensured that ‘no danger’ delegates can participate in the elections. In the recent NA in 2016, 121 independent candidates among 870 ones cannot go through the five nomination steps to enter into the final NA ballot, which is nationally voted. They are the lawyers, doctors, social activists, celebrities, and pro-democracy activists. They could get their documents certified by the People’s Committee, they received calls from the strange threaten to abuse their families if they continue to nominate, or they could not get the agreements from the neighbours and co-workers in three negotiations. There are three common obstacles they face when self-nominating for the candidate position in the NA. There is no clear evidence of who is standing behind, but there is no exclusion to the possibilities that these were done by the Party, or the government institutions. The regulation that the name of the candidate has to be approved by the People’s Committee also creates difficulties for the delegates, showing a high degree of control of the government.

Finally, prior to the nomination of actual candidates, the central party-state leadership, and the NA Standing Committee (NASC) submitted the details of the demographic, political, and functional composition of the next NA. This blueprint is submitted to the provincial election boards to nominate candidates to fill the slots. Figure 4 from the NA 2007 shows how the actual result is remarkably close the pre-planned blueprint.

Figure 4 Proposed Structure of the Standing Committee and Final Results

Source: Malesky, 2011

It shows that the authority is fairly confident about the proposed structure and its levers of manipulation that it can actually achieve the result. However, the slight differences in the election result also indicate that there is a degree of electoral risk due to unpredictable votes that cannot be entirely stage-managed.

The above analysis clearly shows that though the elections in Vietnam are regarded as transparent and commit no electoral fraud, it is controlled by the Party-state and the Party is using the NA for its political motivation, including enforcing its legitimacy and leading to the misrepresentation of the delegates in the NA.

I have come to the conclusion that the NA is under the heavy control of the Party and the Party is regarded as merely a ‘rubber stamp’ organization. Even the decision to empower the NA came from the Party leadership, its aims to increase the balance-and-check in the system and avoid the internal conflict inside the Party. It has raised the question that if the Party is the top body making supreme decisions, is it acting for the interests of the people?

The Party’s Claim of Representation

Putting in the context of a socialist state in Vietnam, the Party justifies its claim of representation of the people. Firstly, the interests of the people are objective and consistent with the state. Representation means representing these objective, long-term, complete interests of the people (Hu, 1993). Secondly, the VCP is the vanguard of the progressive classes. It has no interests of its own and rules solely in the interests of the nation and the people. The VCP, thus, can and has to undertake that objective, long-term and complete interests of the people. Thirdly, good representation cannot be judged by the procedural freedom of democracy, but rather the substance of representation, or, to the benefits of the people. Socialist democracy is based on public ownership of the means of production, thus, serves the people’s true interests by definition (Hu, 1993). Therefore, the NA should follow the direction of the VCP. Supporting and implementing the policies of the VCP is the way for the NA to represent people.

The Party did play a crucial role in the national struggle and in the progress of socio-economic development of Vietnam (Gainsborough, 1997). However, the decisions made by the Party is not always for the benefits of the people, and the Party is no longer the vanguard of the progressive class. Taking two examples of the two decisions made by the Party. Firstly, in November 2007, the Vietnamese government approved a plan by the state-owned company, in cooperation with a Chinese company, exploit bauxite ore in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The decision was affirmed by the Politburo (the highest decision making body in the Party) in April 2009. However, this decision has raised the public concerns about the environmental issues and the private gains behind these contracts. The Party, with the great interference of the NA, had to reconsider its decisions and withdrew the contracts. Secondly, in early January 2013, the NA drafted the new Constitution and collected the ideas of millions of ideas of people. One of the recommendation was to replace the Article 4, which is ‘the Party is the leading force of the State and society’. To no surprise, the Party declined this suggestion and even suppressed the dissidents and oppositions (London, 2014).

Conclusion

By unpacking the concept of representation into three aspects of the sense of representation, the willingness of representation, and the capacity of representation, I point out that the representation did exist in non-democratic regimes and varies in its spectrum. However, to understand fully the mechanism of representation in an authoritarian regime, one cannot look into the proportional rate of the delegates in its Congress. Instead, as I have analysed, these results were heavily manipulated by the Party. Tracing back to the history, when NA is an imposed polities and created by the Party, it helped explain the superiority of the Party over the NA. The Party’s claim of representation in a socialist state is no longer justifiable with its consistent mistakes in making decisions and acting on behalf of the interests of the people. In recent years, with the economic reform and progressive liberalisation of Vietnam, the NA is taking more positive steps to stand for the people, presents the options and fight for the objectives that they think would further social welfare. A few notable changes have been introduced since 2002 to increase the capacity of the NA to draft and analyse legislation (NA, 2012). Many of the government delegates are no longer nominated by the central ministries, but instead by the research arm of the NA to serve as experts on assembly committees. The delegates in the NA also varies, contains more university professors, doctors, lawyers, private businessmen, and heads of business associations. They also increased the candidate-to-seat ratio, making Vietnam as one of the authoritarian regimes have the highest competition in elections (Malesky, 2009). There are hopes for the Vietnamese people to raise their voices and having a channel to reflect their views and their interests.

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*Do Ngoc Thao is a Chevening Scholar from Vietnam studying MA in Governance and Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. She is a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party and was a Monitoring and Evaluation Consultant for projects of the Government of Vietnam, UNICEF and various NGOs. 

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Bibliography

Eulau, H., & Karps, P. D. (1977). The Puzzle of Representation: Specifying Components of Responsiveness. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 233. http://doi.org/10.2307/43934

Gainsborough, M. (2005). Party Control: Electoral Campaigning in Vietnam in the Run-up to the May 2002 NA Elections. Pacific Affairs, 78(1).

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Hu, S. (1993). Representation without democratization: The “signature incident” and China’s National People’s Congress. Journal of Contemporary China (Vol. 2). http://doi.org/10.1080/10670569308724162

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