Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Politics of a Divided Party and Parkinson's State in Vietnam

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Politics of a Divided Party and Parkinson's State in Vietnam

Article excerpt


The two most important domestic political events in Vietnam in 2001, the Ninth Party National Congress and the Central Highlands unrest, reveal to observers a divided Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and a Parkinson's diseased state. Political struggle among the leadership has bred incohesiveness within the VCP and the state. It has diverted attention and resources away from the task of good governance. The first part of this article maps the political struggle among the key leaders at the Ninth Congress and examines its major implications. The second part examines the Central Highlands unrest and argues that the fundamental problems associated with it are the lack of a practical land regime as well as the inability of the party-state to control its bureaucracy


In its Annual Report on Human Rights, the U.S. State Department cited Vietnam as a country that lacks certain human rights, such as freedom of press and freedom of speech. (1) It noted:

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party state, ruled and controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. The [VCP's] constitutionally mandated leading role and the occupancy of all senior government positions by party members ensure the primacy of the party. Politburo guidelines enable the Party to set the broad parameters of national policy.

These observations, which are more or less repeated every year by the U.S. State Department, impress on the reader an omnipotent and extremely powerful communist party and state. The U.S. State Department is not alone in this portrayal of Vietnam. Another recent report says that Vietnam is an "old-style communist state." (2) What does that mean? Wire services, while reporting on the latest developments in Vietnam, invariably never fail to mention that Vietnam is a communist state and that the Vietnamese-Communist Party (VCP) holds all the levers of power. Individuals and opposition towards the VCP outside Vietnam also lose some credibility when they deliberately portray an unfavourable image of Vietnam. (3) They cast Vietnam as a country that has an imposing political party flexing its muscles at will and achieving its goals at ease.

People who uncritically accept the popular images forget that in human affairs disagreement and discord are unavoidable. The written rules of politics in Vietnam that provide the legal framework are authoritarian, but the unwritten rules of elite politics are pluralistic. The unwritten rules are anachronistic to the image of unity that the country's officials and media try to portray. The pluralistic tendency under an umbrella of authoritarianism began after the second Indochina War ended in 1975. Dissension and differences in opinion over foreign policy (4) and economic development policies broke out, much of it in the aftermath of economic failure or stagnation as a result of applying orthodox ideas to policies. (5) Opponents of orthodoxy argued for more pragmatic solutions and regimes of socio-economic governance. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were continuing and fundamental leadership differences on the issue of the extent to which ideology should give way to pragmatism even though the former is b ecoming less relevant in guiding economic policy. As late as August 2001, at the Third Plenum (meeting) of the Ninth Central Committee, the leadership declared that: "the state sector of the economy (in which state enterprises are the main pillars) shall occupy a leading role and this role is closely associated with the country's move towards socialism and stable economic and social development". (6)

As a balance to this, the reformists within the VCP managed to secure a commitment to re-evaluate and reform the activities and management of state enterprises. Thus, the stalemate continues. Given this constant debate and schizophrenia within the Party, the VCP cannot be expected to be cohesive on all matters.

Similarly, the state of Vietnam is controlled and influenced by many forces that pull it in different directions, although the VCP is the leading influence. …

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