Grassroots Democracy in Rural Viet Nam: A Gramscian Analysis

In addition to a radical modification of the preexisting economic model, Vietnam’s Doi Moi (renovation)1 has also entailed a gradual process of institutional adaptation without altering the core components of the country’s political system. The introduction of liberal market economy principles since the late 1980s has co-existed with both a Marxist single-party institutional architecture and an ideological corpus envisioning socialist democracy. Both these approaches point to the integration of state and society, which in the Vietnamese context is viewed as resting on four main principles: the leading role of the party, the socio-political functions of the mass organizations, the concept of ‘people’s mastery’, and the exercise of democratic centralism.

The institutional adaptation process has been driven by both societal demands triggered by the new economic order and legal changes undertaken by the Vietnamese leadership. This process is, ultimately, modifying the framework of relationships between rulers and citizens. In this regard, and given the lack of political pluralism and other liberties connected to political liberalism, recent legal changes aimed at promoting grassroots democracy in the rural context, mostly the so-called Grassroots Democracy (GD) regulations,2 merit attention as a mean to comprehend the country’s current and future socio-political trends. The purpose of this essay is to conceptualize and contextualize such legal changes in order to ascertain their scope and potential.

Defining features of the Vietnamese local governance system

According to Held’s definition of the variants of Marxism (2006: 118), the Vietnamese formal institutional structure still fits today the classic model of an orthodox interpretation of Marxism. In such a system a “professional leadership of a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries … the party, is the instrument which can create the framework for socialism and communism”. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is, therefore, the core element of a socio-political system in which other affiliated entities (mainly the mass organizations) also play an important role in attempting to integrate the state and society. These leading organizations, as well as the state’s executive and legislative or supervisory organs, are present in the entire country through a pyramidal system of territorial representation, selection and election of leaders, authority and accountability, from the grassroots level up to the top. However, this system is by no means static, and the actors involved have gradually changed their functions over the last two decades. Nevertheless, these changes have not been coupled with a dramatic alteration of the traditional forms of governing. On the contrary, the country’s leading force has exhibited a noteworthy capacity for adjusting and accommodating old ways of decision-making with the new practices demanded by a fully different economic, administrative and international environment.

The comprehensive economic reform process that started in the second half of the 1980s was accompanied by a less dramatic administrative and political change. Dang Phong and Beresford (1998: 85) have called this process of relative withering away of the CPV “statization”, whose main feature has been an endeavor towards separation of roles within the state machinery. Thus over the last twenty years the Vietnamese politico-administrative system has experienced a gradual transformation mostly based on strengthening the National Assembly, the Government and the sub-national executive, legislative and supervisory organs, and replacing the traditional Party-driven legislative and executive practices with the “principles of the ‘rule by law’, as opposed to the rule by decree generally applied under state socialism”. Thus, “the three forms of state power – legislative, executive, and judicial – are inseparable, although there is a separation of tasks among the three” (Vasavakul 2002: 11).

As the CPV has declared its commitment to building a law-based State (1992 Constitution) which reduces arbitrariness, increases predictability and reinforces authority relations, the National Assembly is becoming a key player in the country’s political arena. The NA is entrusted with the passing and drafting of laws upon request from the Government. However, the ultimate law and policy-making power lies in the CPV through its Political Bureau. This very fact, together with the overwhelming presence of party members in both the executive and the legislative organs, makes for a crucial difference from a liberal political system with separation of powers. Thus the concept of ‘rule by law’ as compared to the liberal constitutional rule of law rests upon two major issues currently coexisting in the Vietnamese political and administrative system, i.e. the CPV’s commitment to building and enforcing a comprehensive legal framework, and the Party’s determination to continue being the leading force of the State and society. This theoretical construct has been termed “socialist rule of law” (Truong Trong Nghia 2004: 133).

Scholars have addressed the issue of power distribution within the state and society over the last decade from different perspectives. Thus, some have catalogued this system as “domination state” (Thayer 1992), “mobilizational authoritarianism” (Womack 1992), or “mobilizational corporatism”. Alternatively, Kerkvliet (2005) has paid attention to informal but at the same time powerful political forces behind the scenes of the formal institutional structure, thus concluding that the Vietnamese system embodies a sort of “dialogical state”, as the Party’s retention of leadership rests upon its ability to deal with a variety of political actors and to accommodate their growing demands.

In his analysis of the de-collectivization process in the northern Vietnamese countryside since the early 1980s, in which a peaceful and unorganized peasant initiative brought the Party to accept the massive reform program of the late 1980s, Kerkvliet has ascertained the existence of extremely important informal and peripheral political forces, which have helped configure the overall governance system of the country, through a process essentially defined by communication between villagers and local officials (2005: 36). A related output of such a process was the highly equitable land distribution policy implemented during the 1980s. The villagers, who actually provoked the dramatic change from collectives to household farming, have been generally satisfied with this new ownership and management arrangement or “second land reform”. They have seen the recognition of “use rights” instead of proper land ownership “as protection against accumulation of land by a few people and as an assurance that all farming families would have fields” (1987 and 1998 Land Laws; Kerkvliet 2005: 228).

McCarty (2001: 4-6) has provided analogous insight by coining the term “consensus governance” or “managed democracy”, referring to a system in which the CPV allows a considerable degree of political dialogue among traditional and newly arisen social and interest groups, which are “active and even publicly vocal within a monopoly structure (a pyramid) where the Party sits at the top”.

Historically, the Vietnamese political-administrative system, unlike those of other Southeast Asian countries, has been highly centralized in accordance with a “vertical governing hierarchy extending from the capital down to every village in the land”. The extent to which this model of power relations has changed as a consequence of the Communist Party’s penetration in the deepest rural grassroots of the country is still generally unknown (Marr 2004: 47-8).

The 1992 Constitution of Vietnam defines the country’s unitary political nature and its plural cultural configuration by stating that “The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the unified State of all nationalities living on the territory of Vietnam”. The administrative structure of the country consists of three tiers, namely provinces and cities under direct central rule, districts, provincial cities and towns, and communes (rural areas) and wards (urban districts). This overall structure is being gradually decentralized as a consequence of the economic and administrative reforms.

As in the case of the central government, Doi Moi has also enabled the emergence of People’s Councils (local legislative and supervisory organs of state power, with authority to implement policies, but without law-making power) and People’s Committees (local executive organs) as major political actors at the local level to the detriment of the traditional power monopoly of the Party and the mass organisations (Vasavakul 2002: 17). However, in practical terms, the central government’s effort to fill the power vacuum between itself and the sub-national tiers has not yet reached the goal of establishing a sound framework of central-local relations. Provincial governments are actually highly autonomous, and have strong influence on the lowest tiers, i.e. district and communes. Fritzen (2002: 5) has indeed pointed out the existence of a process of “centralisation” at the provincial level.

Nevertheless, commune officials have played a rather important role over the renovation period in implementing polices formulated by the Government. Pham Quang Minh (2004: 101-2) has enumerated the following tasks directly managed by commune cadres: redesigning the administrative structure, executing the land reform, organizing agricultural cooperatives, and reallocating land to households. He also reports that the village has gradually acquired more socio-political significance due to a strengthening of the direct interaction between people and the village heads.

The basic Vietnamese political units are divided into villages in the rural areas. Despite its current lack of formal institutional authority, the village has traditionally been a locus of collective actions based on communitarian identity. Common economic interests and control of social relations have historically entrusted the village with institutionalised authority as an entity overcoming, and adapting to, the strong kinship and family ties in rural Vietnam. The wet-rice cultivation systems, together with mobilisation against natural disasters and invasions, encouraged such collective arrangements, which included an administrative structure led by an elected village head and “codes-of-practice or conventions” for regulating social relations among village members. In addition, the traditional taxation systems imposed by landlords, pagodas and army created a diversity of “contract-type relations” between state authorities and the village as a whole (Le Bach Duong et al., cited in Shanks et al. 2003). Therefore, the village as a unit of “self-management” has a long-standing and deeply rooted significance.

Kerkvliet has analysed the production arrangements established over the collectivization period. Since the mid-1950s villagers were grouped in what he calls “common-use agricultural organisations” where they all shared inputs, work, and outputs regardless of their households and villages of origin. He argues that the managers of the cooperatives failed to provide this system with tools for maintaining and reinforcing the principles of “trust, commitment, monitoring and governance” (2005: 242-3), precisely those premises that had been rather well accomplished in the framework of the traditional “village self-management model”.

If the peculiarities of the Vietnamese governance system in regard to central-local relations are considerable, it is indeed the model of state-society relations that makes Vietnam a quasi unique case, due mainly to the existence of the socio-political organizations. The Constitution defines the Fatherland Front as an umbrella organization encompassing the so-called mass organizations, such as the Vietnam Labour Confederation, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, the Vietnam Peasants’ Association, the Vietnam War Veterans’ Association, the Vietnam Women’s Union; and religious organizations, such as the VietnameseBuddhistChurch. The Front’s main tasks are promoting unity among the social groups and advocating the principles of the Vietnamese ideological model. Meanwhile, the mass organizations serve to connect citizens institutionally with the state. Acting beyond their traditional political role, some of these organizations, in particular the Peasants’ Association and the Women’s Union have recently become involved in diverse types of socio-economic development initiatives, especially in the rural areas.

The Women’s Union is a remarkable example of the changing process these party-affiliated associations have undergone over the last decades. Endowed with an impressive nationwide network of offices, leaders and members, this organization is gradually undertaking tasks related to rural development in fields such as micro-credit, gender issues, off-farm economic activities, etc. These activities are carried out under the general supervision of the state organs at different levels, but also under a framework of increasing autonomy thanks to their new sources of funding, especially the international donors.3 Shanks et al. (2003: 28) have argued that these organizations are gradually taking part in communal decision-making processes as “unions representing the interests of their members”.

Nevertheless, the mass organizations, unlike the newly emerging social organizations, are committed and entitled by law (as members of the Fatherland Front) to advocating some of the key elements of a socialist political model in close collaboration with the CPV. Thus, despite the economic, social and political changes introduced by Doi Moi, these socio-political organizations are first and foremost connecting the state with the people or society in accordance with the orthodox Marxist model of state-society relations. Their existence as links between both spheres is an intrinsic and crucial component of the prevailing political regime.

In addition to the mass organizations, since the early 1990s a substantial variety of social organisations have mushroomed in Vietnam. In April 2006, on the occasion of the discussions in the NA on this particular issue there were, according to a governmental report, 320 national associations, more than 2,150 on a provincial scale, and tens of thousands in towns and districts.

Most analysts have concluded that the influence of the Party over these organizations remains very significant. However, Vasavakul (2003: 26-61) has highlighted that a gradual shift from “exclusionary towards some degree of inclusionary corporatism” is taking place in the relations between the CPV and the country’s social organizations, which have been continuously pushing the party to accept certain demands in regard to freedom of religion, alternative agricultural models, etc. Wischermann and Nguyen (2003) suggest that the emerging social organizations seem to have substantial room for both setting up their own agendas and maneuvering within the political and economic context. Gray (2003) has pointed out that some of these organizations have managed to combine collaboration with local officials, dependence on foreign funding, and considerable involvement of grassroots people in project implementation. Le Bach Duong (cited in Shanks et al. 2003: 32) and Kerkvliet (2003: 8) have paid attention to the rural context and confirmed the growing importance of a considerable array of voluntary and membership-based “people’s organizations” or community-based and service organizations including water users associations, micro-credit groups, cooperatives, religious groups, etc.

To sum up, contrary to the liberal consideration of state and civil society as separate entities, Vietnamese civil society must be seen as a sphere of diverse interactions, a “society of mediating organizations … groups [which] serve to bridge the gap between the state and society; and individuals operating in this situation often have overlapping public and private roles” (Le Bach Duong et al., cited in Shanks et al. 2003: 21).

A suitable conceptual framework: Gramsci’s political thought

Scholars such as Pateman (1970) and Macpherson (1977) outlined a model of democracy which, by combining liberal, republican and Marxist principles, set the foundations for a participatory pattern of governance that would enhance the liberal model by identifying and addressing its major limitations. However, given Vietnam’s socio-political model, Gramsci’s political thought offers us the most pertinent frame of reference.4 In this regard, we may note Hobsbawm’s recent characterization of Gramsci as someone who had “developed the elements of a full political theory within Marxism”, and whose “thought was neither designed exclusively for advanced countries nor … exclusively applicable to them” (2011: 317-321).

Gramsci overcame Marxist ‘economism’ by arguing that the economic base does not solely determine society and the political and ideological superstructure (Gramsci, Q7, P24). Such a superstructure, i.e. the state, is not a direct instrument of bourgeois economic domination, but the result of the interaction of interests within civil society, including those of the bourgeoisie but also others of various non-capitalist classes. Gramsci rejected “the assumption that the economy was a self-sufficient mechanism exclusive of political and cultural influences”. On the contrary, ideas, ideologies, values and beliefs play a very relevant role in constituting (and eventually undermining) the existing economic relations of production and thus in the configuration of classes. Such classes, with their political and cultural elements, are present in the realm of the superstructure, where they exert contrasting influences (Martin 1998: 72/83). Thus, civil society is central to Gramsci’s thought (Fontana 2006; Buttigieg 2005).

The Italian thinker defined the state as a superstructure consisting of two levels, namely ‘political society’ (società politica), the realm of the state conceived as an institutional apparatus which employs force, and ‘civil society’ (società civile), the realm of social life outside the state apparatus that is not strictly economic. “Political society was identified with the exercise of coercion, and civil society was identified as the realm in which hegemony was exercised through spontaneous consent”. From this perspective, he theorized that the state should be analyzed as a comprehensive concept (‘integral state’) including a dialectical relationship between the formal political apparatus and civil society, in which respectively politics of coercion (force and law) and politics of consent (hegemony) are exercised simultaneously and in a balanced manner. Thus, the state consists of the “entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to obtain the active consent of the governed”. Therefore, for Gramsci civil society should not only be conceived as a sphere that must be extended in order to radically transform the principles and mechanisms of governance, but it was also actually constructed as an integral part of the socio-political structure as a whole, because “to conceive political society as a discrete entity divorced from its consensual support in civil society was to ignore the ways in which states frequently seek popular  support to secure the interests of dominant economic classes” (Martin 1998: 69-70).

Gramsci (Q4, P14 and P38) envisioned a model of democracy that is embedded in his conceptualization of ‘hegemony’. This concept has been broadly defined as ideological and political leadership based on the consensual dimension of political control (Femia 1987: 25). However, a number of scholars have further elaborated on Gramsci’s key contribution to political thought by ascertaining the educational dimension of hegemony as a process of social learning ultimately aimed at radically deepening democracy. Thus, according to Martin (1998: 65-89) in addition to the key roles of the political party as a hegemonic group and of democratic centralism as an alternative to both liberal democracy and bureaucratic centralism, popular participation – based on mutual education and leadership between rulers and ruled – is instrumental to develop an intellectual and moral reform aimed at achieving a model of democracy based on Gramscian hegemony, in essence socialist democracy.

Gramsci considered education of the masses crucial and saw the state’s role in education as vital: “every state is ethical insofar as one of its most important functions is to raise the mass of the population to a certain cultural and moral level” (Gramsci, Q8, P179). Based on its ‘ethical leadership’ and by using the education and legal systems, the state must aspire to obtain equilibrium between political society and civil society, between coercion and consent. Thus hegemony is achieved only when both spheres are dominated, and therefore the achievement of popular consent is a sine qua non for the socialist project to be realised (Martin 1998: 72). The gradual ‘absorption of political society into civil society’ should lead to the actual eradication of the division between the state and civil society. This would bring about an ‘organic’ unity or society essentially characterised by the self-governance of the masses. As Hill (2007) has indicated, Gramsci’s notion of democracy is strongly rooted in a dialectical relationship between the party and the people, based on a perspective of freedom as an educational process of practical reasoning, reciprocal learning and control, and social empowerment. Furthermore, according to Sassoon (1987: 231) the logic of hegemony points to the necessity of a continuing plurality of political and social organizations. From this perspective, Gramsci’s theory of democracy is significantly linked to contemporary contributions on deepening democracy, deliberative democracy and other related accounts of participatory democracy.5

Thus, the conceptual and empirical connections between the Gramscian concept of hegemony and participatory democracy support the idea that socio-political participation in local governance is crucial for the development of a truly socialist project of democracy. A Marxist hegemonic political project that is not strongly founded on a clear ideological and practical commitment to popular participation is inconsistent. This is critical for analysing state-society relations in a country like Vietnam, because a solid institutionalization of a one-party system through non-authoritarian and non-manipulative means can only be based on the gradual promotion of popular participation.

Relevant ideological, institutional and policy frameworks on grassroots democracy

The practice of grassroots democracy in rural Vietnam is determined by existing institutional frameworks, ongoing policies and underlying core ideological principles. Regardless of the outcomes of its implementation, the Grassroots Democracy Decree (GDD) was an initiative of paramount importance, due to the peculiarities of the Vietnamese institutional system. The absence of political pluralism and clear division of state power makes citizen involvement crucial element to enhancing accountability. Thus, social horizontal accountability6 is, considering the Vietnamese governance model, an issue that goes beyond a mere reform of public administration, as it may potentially affect the very sources of legitimacy of the entire institutional system. Hence, the GD regulations should be understood as a key political initiative.

A number of commentators concur in pointing out the social unrest and anti-corruption protest that erupted in the province of Thai Binh in 1997 as the immediate cause of the Government’s decision to promulgate the GD regulations.7 The Resolution leading to the Decree was indeed issued in the third plenum of the Party’s Central Committee (Term VIII) in June 1997. However, this new regulation is not a reform but a political measure highly consistent with the existing legal and political frameworks, particularly in regard to core theoretical principles such as people’s mastery, democratic centralism and socialist democracy.

Thus, the 1992 Constitution highlights in several articles the commitment of the state as a guarantor and promoter of people’s mastery (Article 3)8, as well as the responsibility of the local legislative bodies to “maintain close ties with the electors, submit themselves to their control, keep regular contact with them…” (Article121). Based on historical relations between diverse dynasties and people, as well as on the relationship between the CPV and the people in accordance with Marxism and Leninism, the political scientist, former chairman of the National Assembly, and current CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (2004: 166-174) has defined people’s collective mastery, which he considers fundamental to the regime, as a process “respecting human beings, bringing into full play the creativeness of all walks of life and orienting such creativeness to the building of a new society”, in which the State is endowed with a high degree of responsibility in adopting “the positive measures to ensure the people’s basic needs, such as employment, food, clothing, health, education […]” and “social equity”, as expressed in the 6th Party Congress of 1986. People’s mastery must thus be understood as a holistic concept, including political, social, economic and cultural rights, rather than as people’s sovereignty or human rights alone.

Nguyen Phu Trong (2004: 40) has defined this political model as follows: “The political institution in Viet   Nam is one of socialist democracy. Socialist democracy differs from bourgeois democracy in various ways. It is the democracy of the overwhelming majority of the population, in the first place the laboring people, and is closely linked with social equity, and against oppression and injustice”. He has also conceptualized democratic centralism as applied in the current Vietnamese context in a rather Gramscian vein, but also from a quite self-defensive perspective:

Democratic centralism is a close and harmonious combination between centralism and democracy in an organic, dialectical relationship, and should not be understood as either centralism or democracy alone. Democracy is a precondition for centralism, while centralism is a guarantee for the practice of democracy … the principle of democratic centralism aims not just at ensuring discipline but also promoting initiative, creativeness and intelligence of Party members and Party cells. […] In conditions of transition to socialism in peacetime, there remain elements of spontaneity, trends towards anarchism, and plots of division and sabotage the system in and outside the country (2004: 178-187).9

The Grassroots Democracy Decree aims to enable popular participation in commune public affairs by enforcing mechanisms relating to “affairs to be communicated to the people; affairs to be discussed and directly decided by the people; affairs to be discussed or commented by the people and decided by commune administration; and affairs to be supervised and inspected by the people”.

Regarding those areas in which people can directly exercise decision-making, the set of tasks is notably limited. Planning and financial full autonomy and management are restricted to those tasks that are carried out with people’s own contributions, such as the construction of infrastructure and public-welfare facilities (electricity supply, roads, schools, health stations, cemeteries, cultural and sport facilities). Meanwhile, direct involvement in decisions on socio-cultural and social order affairs is more relevant: the elaboration of village codes or conventions; building of a civilized lifestyle; maintaining security and order; ending bad practices, superstition and social evils; protecting productive activity, social safety, and environmental sanitation, etc.

Nevertheless, the GDD endows people with substantial capacity to influence the local decision-making process on issues such as: demarcating and adjusting the administrative boundaries of communes; splitting and establishing villages; drafting resolutions of the commune People’s Councils; drafting long-term and annual socio-economic development plans (including national target programs) in the communes; regulating land-use; planning residential quarters, and new economic zones; investing in communally-run infrastructures; determining compensation for ground clearance, infrastructure construction and resettlement.

Finally, a significant number of provisions are addressed to strengthening the supervision exercised by citizens over the local officials’ performance on issues such as: activities of the commune administrations, of socio-political and professional organizations, and of their leading personnel; settlement of local citizens’ complaints and denunciations, including cases of corruption; implementing the resolutions of local governing bodies; organizing and carrying out projects impacting the welfare of the community; management and use of land; estimates and final settlement of commune budgets; and the collection and spending of various funds and fees according to State regulations as well as various contributions of the people.

Hence, the GDD and the related Ordinance approved by the National Assembly in 2007 contain the basic principles to implement a policy program of horizontal accountability between local authorities and the people. However, it is clearly insufficient. The GD regulations are highly limited in terms of implementation mechanisms, given that, as stipulated, the modes of citizen involvement are mostly the exchange of notes, indirect participation through state agencies, and meetings of the commune People’s Council. The regulations fail to create new mechanisms of “participatory institutionality” or “participatory proceduralism”, which have been crucial to participatory governance initiatives in other countries such as Brazil, where schemes of participatory budgeting instituted new regional assemblies and participatory budgeting councils, involving citizens, associations and local authorities in separate stages (Santos & Avritzer 2006). Even in rural China (a more similar cultural and political context), the so-called Villagers’ Representative Assemblies are a salient innovative mechanism introduced in 1987 (Su & Yang 2005).

Insufficient institutional arrangements are not the only constraint for the emergence of participatory governance in rural Vietnam. Indeed, such limitations are in line with key current national policies affecting local governance, mostly those in regard to financial authority, model of public administration, and role of civil society actors.

In the absence of a comprehensive legal framework for central-local relations, the decentralisation process in Vietnam is being mostly designed through core legal frameworks on financial affairs. As indicated in the revision of the State Budget Law of 2002, Vietnam is highly decentralised, in that sub-national governments manage about 40% of total expenditures (Martinez-Vazquez 2004; Fritzen 2002). However, although districts and communes are entitled to collect some revenues (from taxes on land use right transfer, housing, land use, and business), their financial power is subordinate to that of the provincial tier. Obstacles to communes’ financial autonomy and self-management have indeed been reinforced in the 2004 revision as compared to the 1996 law, which included specific revenue and expenditure assignments (Martinez-Vazquez 2004: 13). Therefore, in order to reduce the risks of administrative and financial imbalances (and potential social and political tensions),10 the new law has aimed to create a model providing uniformity and stability to the entire governance system and political and financial flexibility to the provincial governments, at the expense of local autonomy.

Contrary to the tendency towards deeper decentralization embodied in the previous budget law, the current situation reflects the Party’s strategy to consolidate its authority by further relying on the provincial tiers of government. It is also a way to promote consent among provincial officials. This model of decentralization is crucial for the entire governance system, considering that the economic liberalization process has undermined the state’s economic monopoly and is bringing about the emergence of new socio-economic actors that may potentially challenge the consensual political practices. Some recent policies seem to reinforce this approach, such as the ongoing pilot proposal to potentially abolish the district-level People’s Councils, which basically aims to streamline the administrative processes for approval of plans and projects by concentrating more decision-making power at the provincial levels while weakening the legislative branch of state power at the local level and the vertical accountability mechanisms with citizens.

In addition to this, the ongoing major policies affecting local public administration are far from facilitating a radical shift toward greater social accountability. Thus, the so-called Public Administration Reform (PAR) Master Plan 2001-10 is essentially an attempt to modernise the administrative system in line with updated Weberian technocratic principles of rationalization, efficiency and effectiveness.11 This program is by no means designed to incorporate the individual as a relevant actor in dealing directly with daily public affairs.

Moreover, the Party has not yet succeeded in creating a legal framework that enables active participation of civic associations in socio-political affairs. The regulation of the emerging associations is the task that manifests most clearly the immense challenge the Party faces in carrying out a political reform process, because it addresses the key issue of the confrontation between concepts of plurality and consensus. Consensus, rather than pluralism and potential confrontation, is the guiding principle of political decision-making. Given, however, that the economic reforms are bringing social and economic plurality, the challenge for the Party is to identify the right mechanisms to incorporate the new socio-economic actors into the consensus-building arrangements.

Most Party members believed by the middle of the 1990s, according to Marr (1994), that the Vietnam Fatherland Front should accommodate the emerging organizations into its area of influence. Today the situation is, however, substantially more opaque. Officially, the Party has acknowledged the important role that these organizations should play and are actually playing in society. However, the current state of confusion is acknowledged in official reports:

There was a wrong and inadequate perception of the role of associations and NGOs in the context of the market economy, the promotion of democracy and the mobilization of all kinds of resources for development […] There is a tendency to politicize and over-administer the associations and NGOs in our country, which reduces the real purpose of the associations to operate for their members and to make a contribution to the society […] The Party’s exercise of leadership over associations and NGOs currently remains confused and not relevant to the new situation. There is an approach inclined to [advocating] that the Party directly manages some associations. There is also a trend to disregard the Party’s leadership.12

Recent developments such as the approval of a specific decree on associations13 have not satisfactorily addressed this complex and crucial scenario. As a consequence, the existing legal framework does not encourage the creation or adaptation of social organizations as effective mechanisms for popular participation in socio-political affairs.

A case study on socio-political participation in rural Viet Nam: Thinh Hung commune

Conclusions drawn from interviews with the highest authorities of Thinh Hung commune,14 and from a survey addressing all the commune’s public officials, offer insights that severely question the actual relevance of the GD regulations within the communal governance system. First and foremost, commune officials have not perceived the GD regulations as key new legal instruments or reform policies, but rather as one more regulation supplementing the existing legal framework and the informal institutional mechanisms. To them, the main contribution of the new regulations has been to provide procedures for accurate implementation, so that villagers now know exactly what their rights and obligations are. Moreover, in the opinion of the majority of the commune public officials, the GDD has less relevance to commune public affairs than do other legal frameworks such as the Land Law, the Enterprise Law and the Anti-corruption Law.

These overall perceptions are nourished by the fact that no specific training program on participatory theories, techniques and methodologies has been developed in conjunction with the new regulations. Indeed, such a new training approach, which is crucial in promoting participatory arrangements, is not even deemed necessary by the director of the provincial PoliticalSchool. In the absence of such a training approach, local officials cannot perceive themselves as crucial actors in a collective participatory project.

Other obstacles to such a project include the overlapping and concentration of executive, administrative, legislative and supervisory functions within the commune and village public administration, the technocratic and simplistic nature of the budgeting and planning processes at the commune level, and the patent weakness of the People’s Inspection Boards.

Clearly, the conceptual link between the participatory mechanisms and the role of local officials as catalysts of change is not appropriately apprehended by the latter. The inputs and incentives needed for converting ideology into praxis are thus lacking. As a consequence, political participation is not perceived as a practical goal but as a purely theoretical construct, with no direct translation into the daily political affairs.

In practical terms, the sessions of the People’s Council, held twice a year, are the commune’s most important settings for public deliberation. These meetings are open to villagers, though participants are mostly commune and village officials along with some officials from the district administration. They are, according to my own observation, sessions of an informative nature in which the village and commune officials report to the members of the People’s Council about plans, policies and regulations. No participatory planning method is applied, and thus deliberation is mainly formal, but not substantive, and the communication between local officials and villagers is essentially unidirectional.

Likewise, related village meetings, where interaction between officials and villagers actually takes place, are not characterized by a deliberative way of shaping public policies at the very local level. Strictly speaking, there is no deliberation and debate in those official meetings because the discussion is not “aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinions in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information, and claims made by fellow participants” (Chambers 2003: 309). Thus, the public discussions conducted in both communes and villages do not serve as the participatory public setting conceived by Habermas (1997) – an institutional framework in between the formal bodies with their institutionally structured political will-formation on the one hand, and the informal opinion-formation sphere of values on the other.

Insights drawn from a survey show that villagers have however a substantial practical knowledge; “people know, people discuss, people implement and people monitor”. Hence, despite the critical obstacles to true deliberation, the village meeting serves as a venue where accountability takes place, because villagers are informed of the main socio-political matters affecting their lives. It may potentially enhance the quality of the decision-making and its outcomes, because it fundamentally enlarges the available information about the individual’s and group’s interests, and makes possible a better understanding of public issues. From this perspective, the village meetings may be considered one element of a broader framework of interaction between the people and local officials.

To sum up, the link between oversight processes at the commune level and interaction among villagers and local officials is not sufficiently institutionalised. Matters discussed at the village level are not part of an institutionalised participatory planning process and are not necessarily addressed in the commune People’s Council and Committee, where the decision-making power over collective issues ultimately resides. This represents a flawed application of democratic centralism. The social learning process originating in the village meetings is incomplete, for the commune and village administrators do not offer strong incentives for participation. They act fundamentally as informants and recipients of information rather than facilitators of deliberation.

Regarding the associational fabric, villagers in Thinh Hung are overwhelmingly members of socio-political organizations and their sub-groups or clubs, but direct participation of members in activities organised by these associations is relatively limited. However, the nature of some of those activities indicates their importance for the villagers’ social and economic life as they facilitate access to learning, development of solidarity, and cultural life. Villagers conceive the mass organizations and the aligned local groups as sources of individual and collective benefits rather than as mere transmission belts of the Party and state agencies. But because the participation of mass-organization leaders at the Council meetings is insufficiently institutionalised, they do not play a strong role as representatives of their members. The mass organizations thus function more as mechanisms of mobilization than as channels of participation.

Of key importance, however, is the socio-political role played by the village heads. The majority of the people of Thinh Hung find themselves represented by the village head at all village meetings and meet on an individual basis with him/her to discuss diverse matters with collective implications. As a consequence of this strong interaction, the heads of village provide the decisive channel of communication between the villagers and the state at the local level, as well as the main channel of popular political participation. Through them people have access to constituent power: they exercise legitimate and institutional influence that may affect the resolutions approved by the Commune People’s Council. It constitutes, however, a weak participatory arrangement given that this communication system is rather informal.

Indeed, the Vietnamese rural context exhibits a configuration remarkably distinct from the mainstream conceptualisation of state-society relations. The institutional architecture at the local level is designed to develop socialist instead of liberal democracy. The existing institutional frameworks and actors convey the ideas, ideologies, values and beliefs of the villagers to the centres of local political power, where they exert political and cultural influence. Despite weak formal accountability mechanisms, people have considerable information on how their contributions are used. Moreover, there exists a sense of collective ownership of those projects that are funded directly by the villagers themselves, which in turn reinforces the idea of collectivity. Thus, solidarity funds and projects collectively funded and implemented, together with the reinforcement of institutional figures such as the village head, and the formal institutionalisation of platforms for deliberation, consultation and relative control over the actions   of the local officials, are strengthening the traditional local moral economy based on collectiveness. And they are shaping a new moral contract between the villagers and the local cadres based on trust and demand for legally recognised political and civil rights, whose full realization needs, however, further institutional innovations.

Despite the limited truly participatory nature of this system, the relationship between local officials and villagers, based on political trust, collective solidarity and local moral economy, depicts a model relatively consistent with Gramsci’s “organic unity”, supported by policies such as the so-called “Cultural Household” and “CulturalVillage”. It all represents a remarkable example of hegemony-building through combining traditional informal modes of interaction, the formal mechanisms provided by the new legal framework, and specific policies aimed at reinforcing some sense of collectiveness. Nevertheless, the development of such local organic unity is significantly hindered by all the described factors hampering the emergence of truly participatory institutional frameworks and mechanisms, which in turn make the consensual paradigm a rather fictitious and rhetorical exercise.

Institutionally unarticulated civil society and party hegemony adaptation

Given the limited economic and political autonomy of the communes, as well as the overlapping accumulation of positions among local cadres (members of People’s Committee and Council, Party and mass organization leaders, and village heads), all of them carry out at the grassroots level the consensual activities that Gramsci assigned to ‘civil society’ within his ‘integral state’. However, the institutional link between this sphere and the mass of villagers is weak, because the existing socio-political organizations do not operate as true channels of popular participation. On the other hand, the legitimate force of the ‘political society’ (the state as an institution with coercive powers) is fundamentally exerted in rural Vietnam by the district and mostly the provincial governments, because this tier of government concentrates the economic and political decision-making power to the detriment of the commune.

Further relying on Gramsci’s theoretical framework, hegemony in the rural areas is developed in Vietnam through the interaction of the factors comprising the economic base and the superstructure. The economic base is today fundamentally determined by the pattern of financial, administrative and political decentralization. The existing model of central-provincial-local relations reinforces the economic base through which the CPV and the central and provincial governments may carry out policies oriented towards hegemonic purposes in the communes and villages.

Regarding the superstructure, the hegemony-supportive system works at both national and local levels. The absence of an enabling legal framework for the development of civic organizations helps ensure the Party’s absolute prominence in law and policy-making and implementation. Together with this, large official campaigns or legislative initiatives are designed to promote consent among the people. Some of these, like the GD regulations, have direct impact on popular participation; others, such as the new anti-corruption law, focus on administrative and accountability matters; others, such as the Cultural Commune and Village Program, combine ideological and material aspects affecting villagers’ daily life; and others exclusively address moral affairs (e.g. movements such as “Learning and Following the President Ho Chi Minh’s Exemplary Morals”).15

The second level of this hegemony system refers to the implementation of such programs, policies and campaigns through the active role of the local cadres. The system is based on the assumption that state ideology and popular culture are mutually adapted as a consequence of the profound interaction between local officials and the people at large. But, in this regard, a key question arises: what is the true role of the villagers in this overall framework of relations between local civil society and political society?

The GD regulations have not been accompanied either by new participatory institutions or by the promotion of an enabling environment that facilitates the active engagement of traditional and new social organizations as channels of political participation. As a consequence, the current socio-political model in rural Vietnam cannot be catalogued as truly participatory. It also significantly differs from the Gramscian ideal of socialist democracy and organic unity or society. Although there are considerable formal and informal mechanisms of communication between local officials and villagers, this connection is essentially unidirectional, and is far from creating a true socio-political integration. Key concepts and practices such as people’s mastery and democratic centralism have not been sufficiently rethought and reformulated. This implies that whatever unity is found among the people comes from viewing them as a homogeneous unit, based on generally accepted values and beliefs, rather than as a collective agent defined through a process of deliberation among a plurality of actors.

As a consequence, given their limited active role in local political decision-making processes, the masses of villagers can only be defined as ‘institutionally unarticulated civil society’, because they are not fully integrated into the overall socio-political system. The emergence of true participatory democracy in the rural context needs a new type of state, involving measures such as a profound constitutional reform, a modification of the budget law, a progressive law on associations, a comprehensive law on local participatory governance, reform of the training programs for local cadres, etc; as well as a new conceptualization and functioning of politics, i.e. politics based on creating the conditions for active political intervention by the mass of the population and aimed at abolition of the division between rulers and ruled.

In sum, the GD regulations, along with other related policies, strive to adapt the institutional system to the new governance context as modified by the gradual development of the market economy, rather than to profoundly renew the system, which would require a much more determined political move towards the realization of a Gramscian-type model of society. The rapid and deep introduction of market economy makes such a project more difficult. However, incipient participatory or grassroots democracy may emerge in diverse overall socio-political and economic contexts, although they obviously need an enabling institutional environment to succeed.

Thus, if Vietnam is truly “determined to pursue the road to socialism”16 and to reaffirm the country’s collective goals to the detriment of growing individualistic trends, much more political will towards socialist democracy is needed. At the moment, in the absence of a comprehensive alternative to the existing complex and apparently contradictory ideological framework, the attempts of the Party to combine market economy with political unity may only bring partially plausible initiatives such as the GD regulations, but will not bring real (Gramscian) political renewal.


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1. The literature on how the country´s economic system has gradually shifted from a centrally-planned model into a market-based system is relatively profuse. See, for instance: Kerkvliet et al. 1998, Beresford 1989. Arkadie et al. 2003, Riedel & Comer 1997, and Peláez 2006.

2. Government Decrees no. 29-1998-ND/CP of 11th May 1998, and no. 79/2003/ND-CD of 7th July 2003 on the Promulgation of Regulations to Implement Grassroots Democracy at the Commune Level, which were converted into an Ordinance (law-level regulation) in 2007.

3. Observation based on personal experience in the course of professional collaboration with the provincial Women’s Union of Yen Bai in the framework of an ODA project in 2004-05.

4. This is not to suggest that Vietnam’s politics is today following the Gramscian path. I rely on Gramsci because beneath the existing Vietnamese institutional structure, the ideological corpus shaping core legal and political documents (e.g. the Constitution) still contains today key political ideas and theoretical principles for the development of socialist democracy based on popular political participation through a gradual integration between the state and society. These principles are mainly the leading role of the party, the socio-political functions of the mass organizations, the concept of ‘people’s mastery’, and the exercise of democratic centralism. Hence, Gramsci´s concept of hegemony is utilised here in a prescriptive way, as the main component of a theoretical frame of reference for our study of the state-society relation in Vietnam. We seek to ascertain whether the CPV´s political strategy is truly committed to the goal of popular political participation, and also to highlight the significant peculiarities of the Vietnamese socio-political model.

5. For deliberative democracy and associative democracy see, for instance, Habermas (1997) and Cohen and Rogers (1995); here it is worth noting, however, that Gramscian commentators such as Buttigieg (2005:44) and Fontana (2006:73) have criticized the normative and liberal nature of Habermas’s and others’ theories on deliberative democracy. For a radically alternative model to liberal democracy, see Santos and Avritzer (2006). On the other hand, recent attempts at analyzing local governance in China from the perspective of deliberative democratic theory confirm the need to move beyond the liberal blueprint when examining non-Western political models (Leib et al. 2006).

6. Ackerman (2005) has supplemented conventional categorizations of vertical and horizontal accountability by developing the concept of “social accountability”, which proposes to build accountability systems relying on civic engagement.

7. Vasavakul 2002: 37; Fritzen 2003: 237; Kerkvliet 2004: 17. This protest remained localized; it was essentially triggered by alleged corruption of local officials. The Party acted quickly in punishing some of those officials and restoring order through police intervention. Ultimately, the GDD was a political response aimed at preventing developments of similar nature.

8. It is worth noting that the term people’s mastery is significantly different from the key concepts used in the 1980 Constitution, namely the “collective mastery of the working people” and the “historic mission” of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a “State of proletarian dictatorship” (Article 2).

9. Overall, these core ideas are shared by a significant number of high-ranking party members and senior officials that I interviewed.

10. A fiscal policy characterized by profound decentralization of revenues collection and subsequent recentralization has been blamed for social unrest in the Chinese countryside during the 1980s and 1990s due to imposition of irregular and even illegal local taxes (So 2007).

11. Despite its political objectives of renovating the “leading modalities of the Party over the State […] to build a State of the people, for the people and by the people under the leadership of the Party” and to make efforts to “implement the grassroots democracy regulations”.

12. Report on Review of 20 years of “Renovation of the Party’s Exercise of Leadership over Government and Society”. IV Shortcomings and Constraints. 2004.

13. Despite very long and relatively open consultation aimed at approving a law on associations, the final output was simply a rather limited decree.

14. Located in Yen Bai, a mountainous province adjacent to the Red river delta, Thinh Hung´s population is ethnically homogenous (overwhelmingly Viet) and economically dependent but not extremely poor. The province exhibits a rather standard associational scenario, with 72% of the people affiliated to the mass organizations or other associations under the umbrella of the Fatherland Front.

15. Although further research on this issue is needed, the mentioned policies might be considered part of a broad strategy aimed at the safeguarding and updating of Party hegemony, which ultimately may provide the regime with renewed sources of legitimacy.

16. Remarks made by State President Nguyen Minh Triet on the occasion of an international seminar on Marxist theory held in Hanoi on December 2009. Dec 20.

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