Recent scholarship suggests that, under authoritarian regimes, quasi-democratic institutions such as elections and legislatures—the velvet gloves of autocratic rule—actually enable political stability and economic growth. The political economies of China and Vietnam are indeed remarkably stable and dynamic, and compared with China’s ostensibly democratic institutions, those in Vietnam are open and raucous. That makes Vietnam a likely place to find election and legislatures performing their hypothetically salutary functions. But are they?
Even in Vietnam, Prof. Schuler will argue, the legislature’s main function is to convey regime strength and cow possible opposition. Using evidence drawn from more than ten years of fieldwork, survey research, and close readings of legislative debates and the debaters’ lives, he finds that electoral and legislative activity reflect intra-party debates rather than genuine citizen opinion. His results should temper expectations that such institutions can serve either as safety valves for public discontent or as enablers of tangibly better governance. Single-party legislatures are more accurately seen as propaganda tools that reduce dissent while increasing disaffection. That said, Schuler will acknowledge that opponents of authoritarian rule may manage, under certain conditions, to repurpose seemingly democratic institutions toward undermining the regime whose longevity they were developed to prolong.
Paul Schuler is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, where he studies Southeast Asian politics, Vietnamese politics, and authoritarian institutions. He guest-lectures and publishes widely. His latest article is “Position Taking or Position Ducking? A Theory of Public Debate in Single-Party Legislatures,” Comparative Political Studies (March 2018). Earlier scholarship has appeared in the American Political Science Review and Comparative Politics, among other outlets. He is fluent in Vietnamese and has served as a UNDP consultant in Vietnam. His political science doctorate was earned with distinction at the University of California, San Diego.