A multi-party system would be the first step on a long and hard path
It has sometimes been said that if Vietnam were to make the transition from a single-party state to a multi-party one, it would lead to democracy and freedom. That may not be true.
Vietnam's 1992 constitution states that the Communist Party of Vietnam, the vanguard of the Vietnamese working class, is the force assuming leadership of the state and society. All organizations of the Party shall operate within the framework of the constitution and the law.
That makes is clear that only the Communist Party of Vietnam can govern. The party therefore appears inseparable from the state. The constitution makes no mention of other political organizations.
Vietnam is often called a one-party country, and although true, in the past other parties have existed alongside the communist party, such as the Democratic Party of Vietnam and the Socialist Party of Vietnam. Although these parties were largely subordinate to the Communist Party and have since been disbanded (a new Democratic Party of Vietnam was later established as a dissident organization), it is nevertheless evidence that Vietnam has contained multiple political organizations.
If the day should come when Vietnam progresses towards a multi-party system, there will be numerous key players involved, not merely internal (democratic and human rights activists, old Communist Party officials, religious leaders, etc.) but also external.
It would be hard to imagine Beijing not taking a keen interest if Vietnam experiments with a multi-party political system; and yet China may very well allow this experimentation to occur, if only to use Vietnam as a laboratory of sorts, to learn of Vietnam's successes and failures. Coupled with this, the United States would undoubtedly act to counterbalance whatever influence China hopes to sway in Vietnam.
However, the question is not whether Vietnam can make the transition from a one-party state, but whether that would lead to democracy and freedom.
First, the current Communist Party is anything but unified. It would be a mistake to believe that the interests of Party elites are aligned with people at the grassroots level, whose standard of living may not be as high as their leaders.
And as has been stated many times before, the party exists in name only. Rather than a vessel for communist ideology, it has largely become a vehicle for elites to maintain their status. At some point, the divisions between the elites and the Communist grassroots and the aspirations of each may prove too difficult to bridge; and the party, if it has not already begun, will begin to fracture. Change will thus become inevitable.
Moving the centrally planned economy to a socialist-oriented market economy beginning in the 1980's brought much needed economic growth to a then-starving and isolated nation. If the 1992 Constitution should be taken as gospel (it was introduced after the economic reforms), then clearly Marxism-Leninism has run its course, and the government has long abandoned its principles for the allure of capitalism.
This economic transition was not made on a lark but after it became clear that Vietnam, if it did not change, would collapse. Change was necessary for not only the survival of the country but the survival of the Communist Party. Today, Vietnam's slow economic growth after nearly a decade of boom, coupled with news of government scandals and corruption, has spurred demands for change.
Currently, constitutional amendments have been proposed by the government, and have been submitted to the people for consultation. These are designed to respond to economic changes. Whether the government will accept the people's input for democratic reform, such as opening the political system to multiple parties, remains another matter entirely.
But would a switch from one party to multiple parties lead to more freedom and democracy? Short of a constitutional change that would enshrine the rights of the people in law guided by an impartial judicial system, a multi-party political system will only promise greater political representation.
Under a multi-party system, one challenge will be whether minority rights will be overlooked or abused by majority rule. In a system where 51 percent of the people may dictate the future of the opposing 49 percent, it is important to remember that democracy, if it is truly the rule of the people, must itself be held in check, so as not to descend into tyranny of the majority.
Democracy itself is not a promise of greater freedoms if the people dictate otherwise. While having multiple parties will allow for greater representation, if the ruling party, or an alliance of like-minded parties with the majority of the people's support, decides to pursue a course of action contrary to the well-being of a minority group, what then of freedom?
Consider the following: If a majority decides to restrict and prohibit the cultural practices and activities of a minority, such a decision might be considered democratic (if the matter is debated through the legislature) but it would not be conducive to protecting the rights and freedom of minorities.
Bu if safeguards are in place to ensure majority rule and minority rights, this new Vietnam would face another problem: voter participation, required in a healthy democracy. It requires the electorate to go out and cast their ballots, to participate in the public sphere.
If only a minority of the population takes part and the ruling party receives less than 50 percent of all eligible votes, would this not be the rule of the few?
The People's Government The inconvenient truth is that there is no real solution to tyranny of the majority or poor voter participation. The people are sometimes fickle, and constitutional protection of minority rights can be overturned by constitutional amendments.
As for voter participation, little can be done by the government except to repeatedly engage the public and generate interest in political participation. Currently, the people of Vietnam are very much engaged with their government in advocating for democratic reform; however, one can only assume that when such reform is achieved, complacency will set in, and the fire of political activism will slowly begin to diminish.
Yet, for all its problems, a democratic form of government remains the only form of government that can be described as the People's Government. A multi-party political system, necessary in a democracy, allows for greater political representation and diversity of beliefs and ideologies. Democracy is not easy. It requires work and sacrifice, but the opportunities and rewards will prove worth it.
A multi-party system might not be the magic formula to restore government effectiveness and efficiency; however, it is the right step forward. It will be and has always been the responsibility of the Vietnamese people to take command of their destiny.
(Khanh Vu Duc is a Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)