Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Vietnam elections: the globalisation of democracy?

By Neil McCulloch

This is the first in a mini-series of posts this week on Vietnam – let us know your views and comments. Enjoy!

When we talk about globalisation, we often (well, at least I do) tend to focus on the economic bits. However, perhaps one of the most important ideas to go global over the last century has been “democracy”. The simple idea that every adult has the right to vote on a regular basis for those who they wish to govern them is a powerful one. For example, the current turmoil in the Middle East in part reflects the desire of populations, long afflicted with the rule of a corrupt elite, to have a say in the choice (or rejection) of their leaders.

Which is why I found myself rather bemused sitting, as I was this weekend, in Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, Vietnam. During my visit, the city had been festooned with flags and banners proclaiming the election for the National Assembly, which took place on Sunday. 
Election propaganda (Credit: Neil McCulloch)

Now, if you are not an expert in Vietnamese politics (which I most certainly am not) this may surprise you. After all, Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist one-party states. But of course there is more, or perhaps less, to Vietnamese elections than meets the eye. Candidates can put themselves forward – but are vetted by the Party – only those with acceptable credentials are able to stand. Voters are presented with a list of 5 or 7 candidates – of whom they can only cross out two. So in effect, voters are being asked to remove the least acceptable of a set of candidates pre-selected by the Party. And this is only the National Assembly; executive power lies mostly with the Central Committee and the Politburo, appointed at the five yearly party Congress where all the serious political horse-trading takes place. As a Vietnamese friend says to me, “This is how we play at democracy”.

Yet the most striking feature of this system is that, despite its limited nature, there is almost no popular clamour for change. No riots on the streets here – no one occupying Ba Dinh square demanding change. As another friend said to me, “I just don’t care”. The reason for this political apathy seems clear – Vietnam grew at almost 7 per cent last year. Its economy has been storming along at a pace only outstripped by China. Ordinary Vietnamese are doing better and better – why change a system that is manifestly delivering the goods? Perhaps the more interesting question is why the Vietnamese system is effective. Why does it not appear to be hampered by the problems that have beset the Middle East and elsewhere, where growing corruption and cronyism have contributed to economic stagnation and unemployment?

My guess is twofold.
  • First, Vietnam’s government, despite its wholesale conversion to capitalist production, still holds to a strong developmental ideology. Leaders not only repeat the mantra of helping the people, many of them appear to believe it. Although many are deeply involved in, and benefiting from, their control over key economic assets (see Martin Gainsborough’s excellent book on how the State is far from retreating in Vietnam), political promotion does appear to depend on having done something good for society more broadly. 
  • Second, despite the fake elections, Vietnam’s political system has sufficient contestability among the political elite to ensure that the top positions are occupied by people who are both competent and at least not destructively corrupt (see Eddy Malesky’s great paper comparing the political systems in China and Vietnam, and how Vietnam’s much more contestable system gives rise to far less regional inequality).
As I was speeding to the airport, I noticed that every house beside the road was flying the Vietnamese flag – a red flag with one yellow star. “Why?” I asked. “Because the authorities require them to do so on important days like this,” came the answer. As an exercise in democracy it certainly only merits one star – but for development results Vietnam gets five.