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Vietnam - Elections - 23 May 2021

Vietnam is planning to hold the elections for the National Assembly and People’s Councils at all levels on 23 May 2021. The election of deputies to the 15th National Assembly and all-level People's Councils will take place according to a Politburo directive issued by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. The 15th National Assembly for the 2021-2026 term will have no more than 500 members, of which 200 are expected to be full-time members. Vietnam is aiming for at least 35% of candidates for the national law-making body to be women with at least 18% to hail from ethnic minority communities.

The directive on the leadership of the election said this is the nation’s important political event which will select outstanding deputies representing people’s will and aspirations at the NA and People’s Councils in the 2021-2026 tenure, contributing to building, consolidating, and completing the rule-based socialist State of the people, by the people and for the people, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The election will take place in the context that Vietnam has gained impressive socio-economic development achievements after 35 years of renewal, but is facing a lot of challenges and difficulties, especially the serious impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make the election a success, the Politburo asked Party Committees and organisations to draw detail plans to direct the organisation of the election and ensure it will be conducted democratically, fairly, legitimately, safely and economically.

The Vietnamese Communist Party has maintained its monopoly on power by banning the formation of other parties. Questioning Communist Party rule is considered a serious crime in Vietnam and dozens of activists and netizens have been arrested this year for anti-state activities. No checks-and-balance system exists among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government because of one-party rule.

The National Assembly belongs to the Communist Party of Vietnam, not the Vietnamese people. In the National Assembly (Quoc-Hoi) 500 members are elected by popular vote to serve 5-year terms. The President is elected by the National Assembly to serve a 5-year term.

Although the constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly, constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly of political power for the CPV; the CPV was the only party allowed to put forward candidates for office and it oversaw all elections. National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or People’s Council at 21.

Vietnam's electoral process has been designed to prevent hot-button issues from being discussed by the candidates. Voters are not presented a choice of candidates who differ on how issues such as inflation and rising prices should be addressed. This is a pseudo-election which will select the loyalists to the party. Most of the candidates are Communist Party members. Only a few are nonmember candidates, but they too are carefully selected by the Communist Party. They obey easily what the Party decides. The Vietnamese constitution states that citizens can participate in governing the country. The law on National Assembly elections also states that any citizen 21 years old and over is eligible to run for a seat.

Although the National Assembly is constitutionally the highest-ranking authority and officially selects the country’s top ministers, in practice it has often served as a rubber stamp for the Communist Party's Politburo’s decisions. But the National Assembly is becoming more assertive. Some political experts argue that if Vietnam’s political regime was more open, the role of the National Assembly could be improved with the inclusion of more independent voices from delegates who are self-nominated, non-party members. But whether the ruling Communist Party will become more open toward the latest wave of self-nominated candidates is another matter.

Achievements in mass mobilisation work recorded over the last five years have contributed significantly to enhancing the close ties between the Party, the State, and the people, a Party official said at a conference in Hanoi on 31 December 2020.

Such results have also helped consolidate great national unity, carry forward the strength of the people in national construction and defence, and raise public trust in the Party and the State, Tran Quoc Vuong, permanent member of the Party Central Committee’s Secretariat, told the conference reviewing mass mobilisation work during the 12th tenure of the Party Central Committee.

Vuong attributed the achievements to the involvement of the entire political system, saying they have played an important role in socio-economic development, ensuring national defence, security and external affairs, improving people’s living standards, meeting the legitimate and legal rights of the people, building a pure, strong Party and political system, and fighting corruption and wastefulness.

Unlike other contemporary COmmunist regimes [eg, China or DPRK] Vietnam has no supreme leader, but is led by the four "pillars": Communist Party General Secretary, President, Prime Minister, and the national assembly chair. Collective leadership provides more leeway for Vietnam to balance a penchant for tight control under a Leninist regime with the need for greater economic liberalisation to tap market forces necessary to sustain rapied economic growth.

According to Party rules, candidates must be under the age of 65 to take one of the Party’s four top posts – Party chief, prime minister, president and head of the National Assembly – and must have served at least one, though ideally two, terms in the 19-member Politburo, though the Party has shown a willingness to offer age-limit exemptions at recent elections.

The political balance inside the highly opaque Communist Party quickly and frequently shifts. The anti-corruption campaign is viewed by the general public as legitimate. But some sections of the power elite have been marginalized since 2016, including vested interests and those who profited during former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s second term in office.

Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s de facto top leader, is an ideologue who is both President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam. His unusually powerfull position came after he led an anti-corruption drive, ousting the former leadership that had closer ties to business. Since gaining the position of President, he had become one of the most powerful Vietnamese politicians in decades, but at age 76 he had been struggling with health problems and intermittently appeared in public since suffering a stroke in April 2019. Trong may lack the political clout to anoint his preferred successor.

The prevailing view is that the positions of the next General Secretary and President will be held by two different individuals. Trong has essentially delegated the physically taxing presidential duties to Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh. She has noticeably taken on a higher profile including her attendance at the inauguration of Indonesian President Joko Widodo (October 2019) and her visit to India (February 2020). Tran Quoc Vuong, aged 67, is head of the Party’s Inspection Commission and standing member of its Secretariat, and an ideologue who has worked closely with Trong on his anti-corruption crackdown. Despite having the support of Trong, anti-corruption czar Vuong is no shoo-in to succeed Trong. It is not clear how much support he can muster as a potential successor from members outside Trong's circle. Vuong is seen by some as a sectarian and relatively inexperienced politician who has accumulated power through a divisive anti-corruption campaign. Pham Minh Chinh, aged 62, is a former deputy public security minister. As head of the Communist Party's powerful Central Organisation Commission, he has broad influence across party ranks. Chinh was thought to be a top-three contender but his popularity has waned and is no longer apparently in the running.

To Lam, aged 67, is the Minister of Public Security, a role from which the last president ascended, and so is a potential candidate for the largely ceremonial role. Pham Binh Minh, aged 63, is a Deputy Prime Minister who is one of the few top officials who speaks fluent English. As foreign minister he was the face of Vietnam's outward-looking diplomacy, potential qualification for the Presidency.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, aged 66, has represented Hanoi in international trade deals and pushed for greater regional multilateralism as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2020. In 2021 Phuc might seek a second term, or push to climb the party ranks to become General Secretary. Truong Hoa Binh, age 65, is one of Vietnam's four deputy prime ministers. Binh is the Standing Deputy, first among equals, and has assumed some of the Prime Minister's economic portfolio, making him a potential candidate for that office. Vuong Dinh Hue, aged 63, is a former finance minister and professor of economics, giving him some of the qualifications needed for the prime minister's office, which is focused on the economy.

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, aged 66, is Chair of the National Assembly, the least powerful of the four top positions. Trong has held that role from 2006-2011, and is widely expected to be succeeded by Truong Thi Mai, the head of the Mass Mobilisation Commission and Secertary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee (CPVCC).

Ordinarily, the choice of who becomes the next Party chief is made at Party plenums in the year leading up to a National Congress. But since a decision wasn’t made at the last plenum of 2020, it would be left to delegates at the National Congress to decide, as happened in 2016. The 13th Party Congress convenes in January 2021 to decide on personnel changes to the Politburo, Vietnam’s highest decision-making body. All prospective candidates are bidding to raise their profiles, both at home and abroad.

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