Democratization of Vietnam: Thinking Outside the Box

By Trien Vinh Le —

Truong Tien Bridge, in Hue, Vietnam in 2012 compared to 1967 photo. Khanh Hmoong's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Truong Tien Bridge, in Hue, Vietnam in 2012 compared to a 1967 photo in the same location. Khanh Hmoong’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnam has a rather opaque political environment. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) rules with absolute political control, as is spelled out in the country’s constitution, which sometimes results in the suppression of activists and dissidents. The country’s political activists are generally anti-communists who may differ in their activities, operating procedures, and objectives, but they often share common views about the ineffectiveness of the CPV in governing the economy and addressing China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. Most of them believe that the CPV should step aside, or be excluded from any democratic future in the country.

Yet both Vietnam’s “opposition” and the CPV have erroneous assessments about the other with regard to repression and the possibility of democratization. This flawed assessment obscures Vietnam’s democratic potential. I will attempt to offer some ideas to convince both sides that it might be possible to accept a potential democratic model in which the CPV could continue to play a dominant political role.

It is true that the CPV maintains a large security apparatus which it effectively employs to suppress the opposition. However, the repression has generally been relatively moderate. In many cases, when dealing with political dissidents or activists, the communist government has been relatively tolerant in implementing its suppression.

The level of repression, inconclusively described in some writings about Vietnam, reflects a dilemma facing the CVP. Some of the more dogmatic Vietnamese communist leaders have been hard on the opposition while others have been less heavy-handed because they have acknowledged the rationale behind the opposition’s criticism. Consequently, these different views have resulted in conflicting repression policies. Moreover, the fear of future retribution for exercising severe coercion while recognizing some validity to the critiques leveled by the opposition has had a double effect on the CPV. The government is investing more heavily in the tools of repression while at the same time exercising authoritarianism in a hesitant manner.

On the opposition side, victims of confronting the CPV do not appreciate the extent of government tolerance. Instead, they constantly call attention to the communist government’s harshness. In addition, some writers criticize the severity of CPV repression without comparing it to that of other communist or authoritarian regimes. As a result, critics believe the communists should not be included in a future political system of multi-party governance in Vietnam. In addition, the opposition also points to the CPV’s failure to deal adequately with corruption, thus rendering it ineligible to participate in a democratic electoral system.

So two critical points of this vicious circle can be recognized: the CPV’s dilemma driven by fear of being overthrown and subsequently subject to revenge, and the opposition’s focus on the severity of the party’s repression. If these two points were fully explained, the misunderstanding between both sides might be reduced.

Compared to China (under both Chiang Kai Shek and the Maoists) as well as North Korea, the communist state of Vietnam has been considered weaker and less stable because Vietnam has followed a path of accommodation in which the elites have compromised with each other while China and North Korea’s leaders have engaged in deadly confrontation. By comparison, the communist state of Vietnam has been relatively weak from the beginning due to ideological incongruence and political organizational incoherence.

During the recent economic reforms, researchers have also found some important differences in economic transformation in Vietnam and China. Although the two countries reformed their economy without political change, compromises by elites in Vietnam led to a more decentralized system, “fence breaking” in economic terms, and tolerance in political terms. This compromise phenomenon has been less evident in China.

Could it be one of Vietnamese cultural traits? The traits of being less determined, more tolerant, and more prone to compromise have been reinforced since the end of the Vietnam War when people from both sides (north and south) had lived together in the same provinces, villages, or even families. Undoubtedly, the harshness of repression has been duly noted and widely criticized as less civilized. However, considering communist theory’s support for brutally eradicating all other political views, the repression policy as it has been exercised in Vietnam after unification can be considered as relatively lenient.

Although Vietnam has a communist party state, it lacks the authoritarian strength and ideological cohesion to be brutal enough to totally repress the opposition. In short, the dilemma of the Vietnamese communist government in exercising repression might have resulted from the country’s unique development and been reinforced by the unification of the north and south and the subsequent process of economic reform. The level of brutality in Vietnam has been much lower and the policies less repressive and more tolerant than in other East Asian states like China and North Korea. Consequently, it can be assumed that the Vietnamese communist leaders’ fear of retaliation if they were to share power with the opposition is not totally convincing.

Therefore, the fact that Vietnam lacks a cohesive ideological party brutal enough to repress the opposition in her cultural context can be considered a very positive, favorable factor for a long term democratic system. In addition, if the political tolerance of the government is fairly evaluated, it would pave the way for the opposition to accept the CPV in the establishment of a multi-party political system. With public recognition for the past relatively tolerant policies of the CPV, the party can be fairly confident that it will not face possible retribution from the public and the opposition.

A thinking-outside-the-box perspective as outlined above is needed to explore the perceptions of the CPV about the consequences of power sharing and of the opposition about possible cooperation with the CPV. Accordingly, a multi-party political system as a democratic model in which the CPV plays a dominant role could be an appropriate — albeit idealistic — model, given that the transformation from one-party state to a fully democratic multi-party state has few examples worldwide.

Dr. Trien Vinh Le is a visiting scholar at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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