This week in Hanoi, the city’s streets are lined with Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party flags and posters to promote the 13th Party Congress, the most important political event in the state. Held every five years, the weeklong congress meets to approve future policy and help select Vietnam’s highest-level leaders. This time, the announcement of the next leadership team will determine key questions that will have major implications for the evolution of the role of the state’s legislative body, the Vietnam National Assembly (VNA), says Paul Schuler, APARC’s former Lee Kong Chian fellow on Southeast Asia and former Shorenstein postdoctoral fellow.
Schuler, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy, is an expert on politics in Vietnam and the author of the new book United Front: Projecting Solidarity through Deliberation in Vietnam’s Single-Party Legislature (Stanford University Press, in its monograph series with APARC). In this volume, Schuler examines the past and present functioning of the VNA. Applying a diverse range of social science methods on a wealth of original data, his findings shed light on the role of institutions in Vietnam as well as in authoritarian regimes more broadly.
Here, Schuler explains how the electoral process works in Vietnam’s one-party system, discusses the ways in which the VNA differs from the conventional image of single-party legislatures, and offers insights into how the 13th Party Congress currently underway is poised to shape Vietnam’s future.
[Sign up for APARC's newsletters to get the latest updates from our scholars.]
Your book explores why Vietnam, a single-party state, has well-developed electoral and legislative institutions. How is the state’s legislative body, the Vietnam National Assembly, organized and how has it evolved in recent years?
Schuler: Vietnam’s electoral and legislative institutions are some of the most open and active in the communist world. Unlike China, Cuba, and North Korea, as well as most former communist countries in Eastern Europe, Vietnam allows direct elections for National Assembly candidates with more candidates than seats available. Additionally, the legislature allows public debate, including televised queries of high-ranking government officials, including the prime minister.
In terms of its evolution, the legislature has gradually become more professionalized and active since the Doi moi economic opening in 1986 largely to deal with the increased legal complexity required to integrate with the global economy. The electoral process, however, has not changed as much, meaning that the party exerts tremendous control over who is nominated to participate in the elections. The control over the election process is key, because this gives the party a key lever it can use to moderate debate in the legislature.
How does the electoral process work in a one-party system like Vietnam’s and what does your research reveal about Vietnamese voting behavior?
Schuler: Vietnam’s electoral system is somewhat unique compared to other communist regimes, past and present. Cuba, for example, allows direct elections for its legislature, but only one candidate is allowed to compete for each seat. China’s National People’s Congress elections are indirect, with lower-level legislatures essentially choosing the candidates for the national level. In Vietnam, by contrast, more candidates are allowed than seats. Furthermore, some non-party members are allowed to compete in these direct elections.
Despite this relative openness, the elections are limited in important ways. First, local election committees retain veto power over who gets to run. This means that while in the past few elections, some independent voices have tried to run, they have been barred from competing. Second, there are strict limits on campaigning. Candidate lists are only finalized a few weeks before the elections, and candidates are not allowed to reach out to voters independently and draw contrasts between themselves and their opponents. They are only allowed to campaign in a handful of party-controlled events with a limited number of attendees.
This has several implications for voting behavior. Because of the vetting process, voters may perceive the candidates as indistinguishable. Furthermore, even where there might be differences between the candidates, voters have little opportunity to learn about these differences. Hence, voters have low levels of awareness of their candidates and representatives and are forced to rely on observable cues such as gender, age, or party membership when voting. Interestingly, voters actually prefer party member candidates to independents. Other research I have done with Professor Edmund Malesky suggests that this is because voters at least have some information about the ideological orientation of party member candidates and because they presume these candidates will have better access to government resources.
According to your research, what is the primary role of the VNA? How do your findings differ from the conventional wisdom about legislative institutions under authoritarian rule?
Schuler: Recent research challenges the conventional image of single-party legislatures as rubber stamps, suggesting that legislatures can provide some constraints on leaders in these regimes and provide regime leaders with information about citizen preferences. In terms of the VNA, I don’t find evidence that its main role is to constrain the party. Furthermore, it rarely provides information that the party doesn’t already have through other channels. Instead, the role of the VNA, since 1986, has been to take some of the increasing lawmaking burden that resulted from opening Vietnam’s economy from the party and the government. VNA participation lends legitimacy to these laws.
How, then, do we explain cases where the legislature appears active and critical? For example, how do we explain the case in 2010 where a delegate challenged the prime minister to a vote of no confidence? More recently, ahead of the current party congress, how do we explain a delegate challenging a deputy prime minister to explain the government’s delayed investigation of a company’s producing fraudulent fertilizer? I suggest these incidences are best seen as efforts by party leaders to restrain government officials through the VNA. This, in turn, reflects a key difference between Vietnam and other communist regimes, which is the relative balance of power between the prime minister and general secretary. Given this greater separation, the party has greater use for the VNA to challenge the government than the Chinese party leadership does.
The 13th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party is taking place this week. What are its expected outcomes and how will they shape Vietnam’s future?
Schuler: The Party Congress is the most important national political event in Vietnam, as this is when the top-ranking positions for the next five years are selected. The announcement of the next leadership team will answer three key questions that will have implications for the evolution of the role of the VNA. First, will Nguyen Phu Trong continue as general secretary? If he does, this will likely mean the continuation of Vietnam’s anticorruption campaign. Just as important, it will also contravene an important norm, which is a two-term limit for the general secretary. While age exceptions have been made in the past, the term limit exception could set a precedent for future leaders to remain in power.
Second, will the presidency once again be separate from the general secretary position? Unlike China and other communist nations, in Vietnam, the presidency has traditionally been held by separate officials. This has contributed to an overall more balanced distribution of power in the Politburo than in other contexts, where the general secretary is a far more powerful position. This separation ended with the death of Tran Dai Quang in 2018, when Trong was appointed to replace him. If the position is once again handed to a different leader, this signals that the party will remain committed to some degree of power sharing at the top.
Third, to what degree will the party move to merge state and party functions? Consistent with the decision to merge the positions of the general secretary and president, one of the contenders for power in the Politburo, Pham Minh Chinh, experimented during his leadership of Quang Ninh province with merging party and state positions at the local level. Vietnam has also reestablished party committees, such as the Central Economic Committee, which could exert more direct control over the government. An important question, therefore, is whether the party continues its policy of merging party and government positions and bolstering party policymaking organs.
The answers to these last two questions have particular importance for the VNA. Given that the party uses the VNA to ensure the government is following its direction, if the party bolsters its own direct control mechanisms, either by empowering party committees or merging party and state positions, this could render legislative institutions increasingly superfluous. We could thus see a less visible legislature, and one focused mainly on ironing out technical details of legislation rather than playing a visible role in challenging the government.