As calls for political reform and democracy mount in Vietnam, questions are being asked over what kind of political system could replace the old. However, the main objective of Vietnamís harried activists remains ensuring that any transition from authoritarianism to more representative governance is not exploited by those Communist Party officials who seek power for themselves.
A recent move to amend the constitution by the Communist Party sparked a firestorm of debate on Vietnamís blogosphere, leading to many outspoken calls for a full-blown democratic revolution. While there is no indication that communist leaders intend to yield
power, there is a growing recognition that the prevailing political system, forged in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, must change.
Following the fall of Saigon and the unification of North and South Vietnam, strict Marxism-Leninism came to dominate the country. Another result of the communist victory in 1975 was the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens and the demise of South Vietnam's nascent capitalist war-oriented economy.
Devastated by the Indochina wars, embroiled in conflicts with its neighboring countries throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually abandoned by its ally in the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vietnam emerged as an impoverished backwater in Southeast Asia. Only through market-oriented reforms known as doi moi (renovation) implemented in the mid-1980s was Vietnam spared total economic collapse.
Those reforms allowed foreign investment to enter the country and as a result raised living standards. Unfortunately, Vietnam's economic liberalization and capitalist embrace disproportionately benefited state-owned enterprises, which in turn were managed and often fleeced by Communist Party elites and their associates. Do-called "red capitalists" profited immensely off the hard work of its citizens while holding back the development of the private economy.
After decades of government economic mismanagement, flaws in the country's economic structure have been exposed by the global economic recession. Although corruption within the government was generally accepted by the Vietnamese people, the recent economic downturn lit a spark of popular discontent. Bloggers and activists have taken to the streets, often under the guise of anti-China protests, to call for political change. Many of them have been severely punished, including through long prison sentences, as a consequence.
Efforts to reform the political system and constitution have been viewed as grudging official acknowledgement of the need for change. While activists and dissidents demand more representative governance, including an end to the current one party-dominated system, it is not clear yet that they have a coherent and workable transitional model in mind.
While a functioning democracy aims to reflect the customs, cultures and aspirations of its citizens, there is no existing model of democracy that can readily address Vietnam's contemporary needs and wants. The Communist Party's campaign to amend the constitution - where certain citizens have been coerced into accepting proposed amendments - gives little hope that top-down reform will result in a more democratic order.
Would-be reformers in Vietnam rightly fear that the Communist Party will simply be replaced by another exploitative ruling class. Any change will be for naught if the status quo is maintained under a different guise. It was, after all, the Communists who claimed to champion the struggles of the labor class and who in turn were exploited for profit by their would-be saviors.
Terms of debate
Among those advocating for political pluralism include two members of the Communist Party-affiliated Vietnamese Fatherland Front, who have recently suggested the creation of a Democratic Socialist Party. Such advocacy from individuals within the Communist establishment is, of course, a welcome sign. However, for democracy to truly take root will require a more radical departure from the status quo.
For starters, the powers of government need to be clearly and legally defined as manager of the state instead of manager of the people. Beyond clear-cut issues such as national defense and infrastructure development, the government should provide access to affordable and quality healthcare and education - neither of which, it should be made clear, will be readily available on day one of the new Vietnam. Rather these are goals towards which the government must strive to achieve.
It is not, nor should it be, the responsibility of the government to intervene unnecessarily in the lives of its citizens. It is, after all, the corrupt bureaucracy and far-reaching hands of the Communist Party from which a new democratic Vietnam is striving to escape.
The government should regulate the market as much as is required and no more, and allow its citizens equal opportunity to compete in free rather than currently government-dominated markets and business sectors. Accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and social tolerance will be paramount in a new democratic order.
If there is eventually to be a peaceful transition from the Communists' single-party rule to a multi-party democracy, these are just some of the issues that must be addressed. As Communist Party leaders contemplate the contours of political change, would-be reformers must avoid replacing one failed system with another that leaves the Vietnamese people as spectators rather than participants in government. While true democracy is still a distant prospect, the terms of debate will be crucial to any meaningful political change in Vietnam.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa's Civil Law Section; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Times Online and BBC Vietnamese Service.
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