In 2016, Vietnamese citizens will elect new representatives to the National Assembly and to People’s Councils at provincial, district, and commune levels. Held once every five years, national elections are one of the key ways that men and women participate in politics. According to the 2013 Constitution, elections “must be conducted on the principle of universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage” (Article 7). Local authorities and the Vietnam Fatherland Front, who are tasked with organizing elections, must ensure that Constitutional and legal provisions are followed.
As human and economic development in Vietnam has increased over the nearly three decades of đổi mới, people’s expectations of governance are also changing. In addition to national elections, citizens take part in political life through direct decision-making in villages and communes, and through elections of village heads. Direct and representative forms of participation can be summarized in two popular slogans: “People know, people discuss, people do, and people monitor”, and “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. How well are these rights implemented in practice?
Earlier this year, I joined with colleagues at Oxfam (an international non-governmental organization) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to conduct research on Vietnamese people’s experiences of political participation. We interviewed over 100 citizens and local officials in three provinces (Hòa Bình, Quảng Trị, and Ninh Thuận), with cooperation of the Fatherland Front, Farmers’ Union, and provincial People’s Councils. Our research also drew on a wealth of survey data available through the annual Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI), which is a joint effort of the Fatherland Front, UNDP, and CECODES, a Vietnamese NGO.
Each of the locations we visited exemplified certain positive practices that should be recognized and highlighted. Vietnamese citizens participate in a wide array of mass organizations and informal social groups at the grassroots level. PAPI data indicates that associational membership may be increasing over the last several years: in 2014, 65 percent of all PAPI respondents nationwide reported membership in some form of association, up from 51 percent in 2011. Our field visits showed that membership is nearly universal in some areas, such as coastal Quảng Trị. In other locations, participation varies. Notably, 89 percent of ethnic minorities in Hòa Bình participate in associations, but only 39 percent of minorities in Ninh Thuận.
Vietnamese citizens also have opportunities to contribute directly to local decisions about socio-economic development, such as land use, development planning, and budget monitoring. These forms of participation are specified in the 2007 Ordinance on Grassroots Democracy. Some citizens we interviewed pointed to improvements in recent years: “Now, when I go to meetings I speak up a little more… and try a little harder”, said one woman in Hòa Bình. Other citizens and local officials stated that participation in village and commune meetings was often superficial and occurred only after key decisions had been made. Our research, and the PAPI survey, found that monitoring of local government performance through People’s Inspection Boards (PIBs) and Community Investment Supervision Boards (CISBs) does not always function as designed, due to limited resources and overlapping mandates at the local level.
In the last national election, held in 2011, official turnout was over 99 percent. Yet when PAPI asked a representative sample of nearly 14,000 citizens, only two-thirds stated that they went to vote in person. While it is possible that some voters simply forgot about the elections afterwards, a more likely explanation for this gap is the prevalence of proxy voting, in which one person (usually, but not always, the male household head) casts ballots for all family members.
Proxy voting is legal in village head elections, but not in voting for People’s Councils and the National Assembly. Notably, in the 2013 PAPI survey, 40 percent of women reported that someone else had voted on their behalf in the last election, compared to only 19 percent of men. This means that many women do not yet have a chance to exercise their Constitutional right to a direct and secret ballot. Our field research found that youth and migrants are also under-represented in local elections. Citizens and local officials stated that proxy voting is more common in some locations than others. Some believed it was acceptable, while others thought the practice should be ended.
For voters, education level and trust or confidence, rather than policy positions, are the most important characteristics in choosing elected representatives. Citizens in Quảng Trị said that candidates for village head and People’s Council should be “hardworking and successful”, “happy in their family”, and “active in community events”. Local cadres also stressed the importance of loyalty: an official in Ninh Thuận told us that “Confidence means good morality, carrying out the Party’s instructions… has a strong voice and can speak convincingly”.
Elected bodies in Vietnam thus have a dual function: they both represent diverse social groups and ensure effective governance. The key dilemma facing election managers is how to balance “structure” and “quality”, or in social science terms, corporatism and meritocracy. To increase representativeness, elected bodies could include a higher percentage of women and ethnic minority delegates, or specify that delegates must reside in the constituency they serve. Reforms for greater effectiveness, by contrast, could include higher educational requirements for candidates or an increase in the number of full-time delegates who do not have other concurrent jobs in government or business. Some of these potential changes have already been discussed in the National Assembly, which passed a revised Law on Local Government in June 2015.
When the Oxfam-UNDP research team asked citizens and officials how local elections could be improved, we were surprised by the variety of responses. For instance, a majority of citizens interviewed supported self-nomination of candidates for local offices, while most local officials felt that introduction of nominees by the Fatherland Front ensures “higher quality” candidates. Everyone stressed the importance of the principle of “one person, one vote” and supported an increase in full-time, professional elected representatives. The upcoming 2016 elections offer a significant opportunity to expand people’s voices in the political system and put these suggestions into practice.
* The author is a Senior Technical Advisor, Oxfam. The opinions expressed are his own.