Vietnam: New Constitution Offers Little Hope for Change

Vietnam’s National Assembly last week ratified a new constitution, but there is little cause for celebration because the political system that permitted the constitutional abuses remains unchanged.

That is a disappointment. The government solicited comments from the public, reportedly receiving millions of responses demanding change. The lawmakers ignored a petition from 72 scholars and intellectuals to the Constitutional Amendment Drafting Committee, leaving flagging, bloated and unprofitable state-owned enterprises in place and ignoring calls for liberalization that would allow for foreign investment, which would bring rationality to the economy. Instead, the socialist-oriented market economy remains in place.

It is thus widely believed that the new constitution, which takes effect Jan. 1, represents equivocation and delay rather than euphoria for a new age. There appear to be few changes in either economics or politics, but it will serve the Communist Party of Vietnam well. Unfortunately there is little hope that it would ensure stable and sustainable growth for the country’s long-term future. Observers have followed the development of the document with trepidation rather than hope.

The basic question involving the new constitution is how to deal with the infamous Article 4, which continues to insist that paramount power remains with the Communist Party. That has incurred criticism that the party is incapable of launching comprehensive reforms. The document, which will take effect on Jan. 1, was approved by 97.59 percent of the 488 lawmakers in the National Assembly.

Although the party’s loss of credibility appears irreparable, there is no sign of an emerging revolutionary movement among the wider population. The reasons for this are understandable. There is concern that the party has learned the brutal lesson of Tiananmen in 1989, when the Chinese government crushed a student movement with hundreds of deaths, and that widespread protest would be similarly crushed. Others argue that the only way out should be peaceful means because nobody wishes to experience state failure and civil chaos.

Recently, human rights issues suffered a major setback when anti-Chinese demonstrations in June were shut down decisively by police, who hauled away the protesters in buses. These violations are impermissible but government, without any fear of being called to account for its actions, is loath to surrender control.

While Vietnam’s selection to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Nov. 19 could be of greater and more immediate symbolic effect, Vietnam is not ready to lay the basis for any human rights commitments. Rather, recent evidence suggests the opposite. Many police and the courts are part of the problem, rather than the solution. An international campaign to free any particular political prisoner from detention means he or she will probably be quickly replaced by a new one.

Obviously, income inequality is widening. Economic reform doesn’t benefit the poor, and the rich often benefit disproportionately from growth. While peasants and workers are angry about the lack of reward for their contributions to the national economy, they have no alternative but acceptance and debt. The peasants want radical reform to the land law to keep developers from simply stealing land outright from farmers. Workers are asking for poverty reduction through increased social welfare. Their protest unnerves the government.

Strikes occur daily but if government acts at all, they usually deliver temporary palliatives. Although some recent protests with guns and explosives have triggered concerns about widespread insecurity, the prognosis for the revolution is bleak.

The post-revolutionary elites understand well how bad the government is, but they are avoiding addressing the political questions in public discourse, hoping a better material life. Most senior officials of pensionable age think only of their claims of payment and dream of an enjoyable retirement. The few get richer and seek patronage in determining the chance for promotion. The number of extremely wealthy Vietnamese has grown by 14.7 percent in 2013, with ultra-high net worth individuals with assets of US$30 million or more has risen to 195 according to a report by UBS and a Singapore research company, Wealth X. Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong told a party meeting in October that the wealth gap poses the most worrying threat to the organization’s survival.

While many of the elites are buying housing and sending their children to study abroad, a growing number of college graduates are jobless and afraid to discuss political issues, arguing that they have no way of affecting government policy. A debilitating sense of fear, indifference and apathy is permeating the whole society. To overcome, some argue that civil society should empower people to break out of the nonviolent opposition mindset.

Thus encouragingly, there is growing demand for more forms of political information. Fortunately, despite the cyber security, bloggers enjoy online freedom of speech as a safety valve for pent up social discontent.

Critics claim that bloggers have no agenda in expressing public concerns. But these complaints miss the point. They are an alarm, an expression of civic duty in raising awareness and mobilizing action. The police should cease their cyber-attacks instead of arresting them for posting criticism of government or contacting foreign supporters.

However, the virtual link of activists cannot replace personal engagement. Direct participation provides a better platform for deliberative democracy. The current atmosphere does not allow for participation in the political landscape. The reasons are various.

First, fed for years with empty promises and now growing impatient, the public want to make their voices heard. Arguing that claims by outsiders do not really help the process, some hope civil society can do better than either the political community or the market. Unfortunately, online activists are not referred as to a powerful opposition. Also, opposition voices do not have a leading figure such as Aung San Suu Kyi or a famous public meeting place such as Tahrir Square. The time is not ripe.

Second, crony capitalism plus the one party system model are not providing any way forward. Some inside the Communist Party suggest that the party should transform itself into a real political party and compete with others for power, as the Kuomintang did in Taiwan. The endemic culture of impunity must be replaced with a sense of accountability.

To realize that potential, politics depends heavily on having the debate now - and not just rhetorically, morally or top down. In so doing, hopefully, faith would be restored and public support would be strengthened. If government, business, and civil society could work together, the public would perceive that a new order might thrive in the new age despite the poor prospects.

In any case, there is a growing sense of the need for change within the country that could put Vietnam back on the right track and that the system could gradually work. The new Constitution does not deliver that promise.

(Kim Them Do works with UNCTAD in Geneva on International Competition Law and Policy, Rule of Law. He researches on Buddhism and country reports on Vietnam.)