Vietnam - Government Overview
While Vietnamese authorities said that they would accept comments from the public until 31 March 2013 about revisions to the constitution, which could be adopted in May 2013, they had also been cautious about the consultation process. Topics seen as sensitive, which include the possibility of multiparty elections or improving land rights, have been explicitly excluded from the constitution debate.
Vietnam has had a series of constitutions, introduced in 1946, 1959, 1980, and 1992. As of late 2004, the Vietnamese constitution is regarded as the 1992 document, as amended in 2001 to continue the reform of the state apparatus, to allow more leeway to the private sector, and to promote progress in the areas of education, science, and technology. The original 1992 constitution modestly downgraded the roles of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the government in favor of reform. Instead of being authorized to do whatever was necessary to “build socialism,” the VCP was subordinated to the constitution and the law, while the government was assigned specific management functions under the direction of a prime minister, whose powers also were defined. In addition, the constitution called for a multisector economy. Although the autonomy of state enterprises was recognized, a role also was assigned to the private sector. Individuals were permitted to acquire lengthy land leases. Foreign investors were granted ownership rights and protection against nationalization.
In 2001 the constitution was amended to increase the role of the National Assembly by giving it the authority to decide budget allocations and to stage votes of no confidence in office holders. Amendments also boosted the role of the private sector by recognizing the right to operate of any businesses not explicitly prohibited and lifting restrictions on their size. These revisions were intended to encourage the development of a cottage industry of individual traders and private enterprises. In the field of education, amendments established the goals of universal secondary education, more vocational and technical training, and easier access to education by the poor and handicapped.
Branches of Government
The constitution recognizes the National Assembly as “the highest organ of state power.” The National Assembly, a 498-member unicameral body elected to a five-year term, meets twice a year. The assembly appoints the president (chief of state), the prime minister (head of government), chief procurators of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Office of Supervision and Control (the heads of the judiciary), and the 21-member cabinet (the executive). Once a rubber stamp, the National Assembly has become more assertive in holding ministers accountable and amending legislation. Ultimately, however, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) controls the executive and the electoral process. The VCP exercises control through the 150-member Central Committee, which elects the 15-member Politburo at national party congresses held every five years. Members of the party hold all senior government positions.
The Vietnamese government has ministers in the following areas: agriculture and rural development; construction; culture and information; education and training; finance; foreign affairs; industry; interior; justice; labor, war invalids, and social affairs; marine products; national defense; planning and investment; public health; science, technology and environment; trade; and transport and communications.
Administratively, Vietnam consists of 59 provinces and 5 municipalities. The provinces are An Giang, Bac Giang, Bac Kan, Bac Lieu, Bac Ninh, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Ben Tre, Binh Dinh, Binh Duong, Binh Phuoc, Binh Thuan, Ca Mau, Cao Bang, Dac Lak, Dac Nong, Dien Bien, Dong Nai, Dong Thap, Gia Lai, Ha Giang, Hai Duong, Ha Nam, Ha Tay, Ha Tinh, Hau Giang, Hoa Binh, Hung Yen, Khanh Hoa, Kien Giang, Kon Tum, Lai Chau, Lam Dong, Lang Son, Lao Cai, Long An, Nam Dinh, Nghe An, Ninh Binh, Ninh Thuan, Phu Tho, Phu Yen, Quang Binh, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Quang Ninh, Quang Tri, Soc Trang, Son La, Tay Ninh, Thai Binh, Thai Nguyen, Thanh Hoa, Thua Thien-Hue, Tien Giang, Tra Vinh, Tuyen Quang, Vinh Long, Vinh Phuc, and Yen Bai. The municipalities are Can Tho, Da Nang, Haiphong, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh.
Provincial and Local Government
Provinces and municipalities are subdivided into towns, districts, and villages. The provinces and municipalities are centrally controlled by the national government. The towns, districts, and villages are locally accountable to some degree through elected people’s councils.
Judicial and Legal System
At the apex of the judicial system is the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which is the highest court for appeal and review. The SPC reports to the National Assembly, which controls the judiciary’s budget and confirms the president’s nominees to the SPC and Supreme People’s Procuracy. The Supreme People’s Procuracy issues arrest warrants, sometimes retroactively. Below the SPC are district and provincial people’s courts, military tribunals, and administrative, economic, and labor courts. The people’s courts are the courts of first instance. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) has military tribunals, which have the same rules as civil courts. Military judges and assessors are selected by the MOD and SPC, but the SPC has supervisory responsibility.
Although the constitution provides for independent judges and lay assessors (who lack administrative training), the U.S. Department of State maintains that Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary, in part because the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) selects judges and vets them for political reliability. Moreover, the party seeks to influence the outcome of cases involving perceived threats to the state or the party’s dominant position. In an effort to increase judicial independence, the government transferred local courts from the Ministry of Justice to the SPC in September 2002. However, the Department of State saw no evidence that the move actually achieved the stated goal. Vietnam’s judiciary also is hampered by a shortage of lawyers and rudimentary trial procedures. The death penalty often is imposed in cases of corruption and drug trafficking.
Vietnam has universal suffrage at age 18. Elections for the National Assembly are scheduled every five years. Vietnam has a unicameral National Assembly (Quoc-Hoi) with 498 seats. There are 182 multi-member constituencies (from six to 26 seats each) divided into electoral units. Candidates must get a majority of votes in the first round to avoid a second. By a law enacted in 2003, each district has at least two more candidates than the number of elected positions.
Vietnam is a one-party state. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has a monopoly on power. Increasingly, observers no longer speak of Vietnam's troika, but of the "four pillars": General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and National Assembly Chair. The final pillar, NA Chair, has become a pivotal one in recent years, reflecting both the growing stature of the Assembly and the greater prominence and responsibilities of the Chair itself. Behind this is an odd dynamic, in which the National Assembly is expected both to oversee the functions of government and to respond to guidance from the Communist Party. The NA Chair acts as the primary conduit for Party guidance and also shepherd over a legislative body whose members are almost exclusively CPV members but who demand an increasingly independent role in legislative drafting, oversight, and constituent service.
The Vietnamese constitution recognizes the NA as the highest organ of state power. Legally, leadership changes made at the Party Congress do not take effect until the National Assembly officially approves them. The National Assembly remains, fundamentally, an institution that receives its guidance from the Communist Party. 450 of the NA's 493 deputies are Party members, and this number includes all 160 members of the CPV Central Committee. The NA's evolution is not a move away from one-Party rule; rather, it is a refinement, an attempt to institute an additional layer of checks and balances within a CPV-dominated system. Just as the state bureaucracies are assuming an increasing degree of autonomy in the day-to-day management of government, so too is the National Assembly taking on a greater oversight role. But, ultimately, both branches, the executive and the legislative, are dominated by the Party.
Vietnam’s mass media are supervised by the Ministry of Culture and Information and communicate officially approved information. The government has shut down non-compliant newspapers. Only senior officials are permitted access to foreign television via satellite. Given Vietnam’s close supervision of official media outlets, dissidents have sought to disseminate their views via the Internet, leading the government to impose restrictions on Internet use and access. The regime controls Internet access via Vietnam’s sole gateway, Vietnam Data Communications. In 2002 the Ministry of Culture and Information began to block access to Internet Web sites it considers “subversive,” such as the BBC’s Vietnamese language Web site. Also in 2002, the government sent a warning by jailing activists for publishing critical commentaries on the Internet. Altogether, Reporters Without Borders documented seven cases of dissidents being imprisoned or detained for illicit Internet use. The government also has tightened controls over cybercafés. In 2004 the government reprimanded 65 cybercafé owners for violating restrictions on Internet access, including the viewing of pornography.
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