I want to especially thank the staff at the Office of the National Assembly including Mr Nguyen Chi Dzung, Dr Nguyen Si Dung, Mr Hoang Minh Hieu and Mr Phung Van Hung

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2.3 Progress and impact of implementation

Over the five years since the introduction of grassroots democracy in 1998, the implementation has seen many positive impacts on the ability of villagers to participate and influence the work of the local communes. However, despite the Decree obligating all commune authorities to comply with the provisions of the Decree, the overwhelming impression is one of inconsistent implementation of grassroots democracy throughout the country. 90The hierarchical structure and the need for implementation guidelines as discussed above have not helped in speeding up the implementation process to allow the people to reap the benefits of the Decree. Thus, the willingness of the local officials and their leadership to make grassroots democracy a reality is apparently lacking.

A study by Nguyen Van Sau and Ho Van Thong at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Science School in Hanoi on grassroots democracy, provided government statistics, based on the Prime Minister’s Instruction number 22/1998/CT-TTg91, obligating local authorities to submit reports to the central government on the progress of the implementation of grassroots democracy. The statistics reveal that 18-20 per cent of communes successfully implemented the provisions of the Decree, 60-70 per cent of communes had average implementation and 10-15 per cent of communes had poor implementation of the Decree.92 What the authors defined as good or successful implementation was where the communes actually exploited the full extent of the provisions of the Decree, where the local leaders understood the full intention of the Decree and where the leadership showed experience in working with the community to allow the people to enjoy the full entitlements under the Decree. An average performing commune was one where the local leadership has only generally used the modes of implementation in the Decree and allowed the people to exercise a few democratic practices. There was low motivation in implementing the Decree. A poorly performing commune was a product of poorly educated local officials who do not know how to implement the provisions of the Decree.93

A soon to be released report on the implementation of grassroots democracy by Oxfam and the National Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities revealed that 89 per cent of the interviewees in three provinces surveyed were aware of the Decree while 75-85 per cent of the all households participated in local meetings.94 Generally, people now know more about the activities of the local commune because of the information dissemination. At the same time the media readily report on corruption, people’s participation in poverty reduction programs and where grassroots democracy has benefited a community. In the year 2000 there were a total of seventy-five reports by the government newspapers on the implementation of the grassroots democracy decree.95

Grassroots democracy in some parts of the country has allowed for better management of contributions by the people to infrastructure projects and public facilities by making the local leadership accountable for the people’s money and requiring financial and budget statements to be open for inspection by the people.96 Greater accountability by officials is linked with an expectation by the people for better leadership. The increase in participation of people in the political process at the local areas has influenced the political dynamics and personality of the communes. Malarney in his study of two former leaders of the People’s Council in Thinh Liet commune supported the fact that good leadership involved possessing good virtue, benevolence and the ability to develop a relationship (tinh cam) with the local people to ensure that the leader will be elected by the constituency into the People’s Council.97 Grassroots democracy offers the people the ability to inspect and monitor the work of the local leadership and as such if the leaders want to be re-elected they must not only satisfy the Fatherland Front, but more importantly, ensure that the public perceives the leader as being clean and honourable. Thus, there is a need to change the leadership style from a less authoritarian one towards a participatory one.

It should be noted that the positive aspects only reflect a small minority of communes who have successfully implemented the Decree. Many of problems with implementation are more to do with the commitment by the local leadership. There are around 17 per cent of communes in Vietnam who do not report on their progress on implementing the Decree to the Central Government.98 However, the Central Government must also show commitment in providing the necessary tools for the local leaders to actually implement grassroots democracy. Many local leaders are ill trained or do not understand what is required of them under the Decree. The Ministry of Home Affairs coordinates the Decree’s implementation and are supported local and international NGOs by providing human resources and funding.99 However, the Ministry of Home Affairs should become more active in training the local leadership so that there is greater consistency in the Decree’s implementation.

One shortcoming of grassroots democracy Decree is that there does not seem to be any measure of the quality of participation by the people. How well are the ethnic minority people given the opportunity to participate? There are reports that the local communes do provide the ethnic minorities with information that is translated in the various ethnic languages, but again they reflect exceptional high performing communes.100 Furthermore, the head of the households are given the right to participate in certain democratic practices, but the head of the household is usually the male giving little opportunity for women to participate in local government.

2.4 Local perceptions and values

Grassroots democracy is supposed to be for the people. However, one voice that is missing is that of the people. What do the people think grassroots democracy has done for them and how beneficial has it been? What are their perceptions of democracy and what are their aspirations for a democratic state? All these questions require a research thesis within itself to answer, however, this section attempts to reveal an initial impression based on interviews of predominantly local commune officials and some villagers in the Central North region of Vietnam. The author was able to attend a five days conference in Ha Tinh province sponsored by the World Bank whereby the Centre for Legal Research Services at Vietnam National University held a training program to boost the leadership skills of the local commune officials. The interviewees were participants in this conference.

It appears that the leaders in the People’s Council recognise that they have to be accountable to their constituency if they expect to get re-elected for another term in office. One president of a local commune at the conference commented that:

“The people will not elect me for another five years term if they think I am doing a bad job. The people will vote for local leaders who are educated and have a good conscience (luong tam). I need to better understand and respond to the needs of my local villagers.”

As was stated above, grassroots democracy has encouraged an active leadership style where the leaders have to be closer to the people and lead by virtuous examples if they are to get the respect of the villagers. One member of the commune People’s Council who was also the president of the local Women’s Union went out of her way to personally borrow funds under program 135 or the Hunger Eradication and Poverty Reduction program to purchase livestock for the very poor farmers in her constituency.

A major aim of grassroots democracy is to reduce corruption at the commune levels, however, one president of the Commune People’s Council disputed the fact that rampant corruption happens at the local level. He stated that:

“Corruption seldom exists at the local level but exists more at the higher level, if you squander public funds in the village the local people will know. The people will ask where he has got the money to build a new house, buy jewellery or send the children overseas to study.”

When speaking to the villagers at a commune in Ha Tinh province about the effect that grassroots democracy had on their commune, the answers were in agreement with the research by Oxfam and the National Centre for the Social Sciences and Humanities to the effect that people felt that they know more about the work of the local commune as compared to ten years ago. Many attended local meetings when the issue interests them. However, it should be noted that many do not feel that they can change things and that even though a decision is presented to the public for debate, the officials usually act on their pre-determined decision.

Even with the greater ability for the people to exercise their democratic practices, politics is of little interest to the local people and they will only take an interest if it concerns a serious encroachment on their personal economic interests, such as land use rights and the misuse of the commune’s social security fund. The people tend to agree that they are more worried about their livelihoods than monitoring what a politician does. Many of the people tend to be apathetic about corruption in that they think what ever they do, nothing will change old ways. They usually comment that it is up to the personal conscience (luong tam) of the leaders and the leaders would have to deal with that moral dilemma in this lifetime or the next.


In what ways will grassroots democracy contribute, if any, to democratic change or pluralism in Vietnam? On one hand, grassroots democracy strengthens the Communist Party by endowing the Party with greater legitimacy. On the other hand, grassroots democracy provides the training necessary for ordinary people to practice democracy so that some form of direct or genuine democracy may exist in the future.101 However, the talk of pluralism is hugely controversial in Vietnam with dissidents demanding the seemingly non-controversial process of “peaceful evolution” being expelled from the Party or placed under house arrest.102

As grassroots democracy was a Party initiated policy it is primarily an exercise in reforming the bad elements within the Communist Party. These bad elements include, amongst other categories, corrupt and weak local leaders. Thus, the reform is a capacity building project for local leaders. The Party in issuing the policy directive, and the Prime Minister in stamping the directive with the necessary legality, dictated which democratic practices may be exercised by the people and which modes of implementation the leaders may pursue. The grassroots democracy Decree is thus partly an exercise in maintaining control and partly a public relations exercise.

Any proposition for democratic change should be balanced against the standardised World Values Survey conducted in Vietnam in 2001 where 90 per cent of the people interviewed declared their confidence in the national government, parliament and the Party.103 Furthermore, 96 per cent of people were positive about he current political system in Vietnam.104 There was however a caveat stating that the statistics may be influenced by the fear of the people speaking against the central authorities. Nonetheless, these highly positive results give the Party a certain measure of legitimacy to lead without opposition.

As things stand, the movement for any easing of the authoritarian rule or any form of democratic reforms will only come from within the Party.105 The Party itself is not a monolithic creature. It has a number of informed and shifting factions operating to sway public debate and to lobby National Assembly members.106 However, the factions are usually moderate and members will not openly lobby for peaceful evolution for fear of their employment status being lost or worse, being subjected to criminal punishment. Political stability and economic progress achieved through single Party is preferred to a poorly performing economic system with multiparty rule. Political instability that ensued in some post-communist States in Eastern Europe arising from major political reforms with little economic success was the anecdotal evidence relied upon to support the current Vietnamese regime.

Nonetheless, Vietnamese democratic reforms are less adventurous than those of China, its trading competitor and communist partner. China has allowed its communes to have independent candidates running against the candidates from Communist Party in local elections without being heavily restricted by a body such as the Fatherland Front.107 With a certain success, China introduced policies of grassroots democracy in the early 1980s which have allowed the communes greater freedom and independence to pursue their own strategies in implementing the Central Government’s policies.108 Grassroots democracy in China has meant greater decentralisation and economic development, but decentralisation in Vietnam is a rocky process which the country is only trying to come to terms with. Many of the government programs instituted by the grassroots democracy initiative, e.g. Program 135 and the UN’s Rural Infrastructure Development Fund, have allowed greater participation by the people and allowed the local communes to determine for themselves the implementation of national policies.109 However, it is not accurate to describe the decentralisation process in Vietnam without mentioning the barriers that undermines the process of delegating power to the local authorities. They include the strong command and control structure by the different line ministries responsible for a given government portfolio, mistrust of local officials by the central authorities and an ineffective local leadership that has little skills for implementation of central government policies.110

If, triggered by the grassroots democracy process, further democratic change occurs in Vietnam, what will that democracy look like? It has been mentioned from the discussions above that a western liberal democratic system is not keeping with the values derived from the rich Vietnamese history, traditions and cultures. Molly Beutz proposed that a functional democracy with an emphasis on accountability and openness is an approach to democracy that may accommodate a one-party state.111 When analysing the different approaches to democracy, Beutz argues that there are traditionally two schools, one concentrating on processes and elections while the other placing great emphasis on the substance of democracy. Beutz proposes a third school known as functional democracy where democracy should be tied to its main function: making representatives accountable. A purely procedural form of democracy that focuses on institutional arrangements or rules of decision for determining who is to govern, fails to adequately address issues of structural inequality, social justice or the interests and rights of the minorities. According to Beutz, procedural democracy merely allows society to select a pre-packaged candidate as well as achieving international validation by having the proper electoral procedures in place even though the representatives may remain unaccountable to their electorate.112

A substantive vision of democracy, says Beutz, offers little practical implementation because the vision is usually subjective and presupposes a consensus on what constitutes a just and fair democracy.113 The elaboration of the substantive vision usually flows from the right to democratic governance. However, these rights are most often indeterminate and follow the liberal-democratic worldview.114

Functional democracy does not divest itself from processes and substance, but uses them to produce measurable outcomes for the people most affected by a decision. This is done by allocating the power to make decisions to the people, providing space for public dialogue and holding leaders accountable for their actions.115 Accountability mechanisms provides incentives for leaders to effectively respond to the needs of the people because they know they can be criticised and sanctioned by the citizens. The ability of all citizens to sanction their leaders and hold them responsible means that the affected people are consulted about their needs before decisions are made. This form of democracy is robust because issues of social and material inequality are addressed on a basis that is practical and best serves the interest of the people who are most affected by a decision.

Grassroots democracy operating at the commune level is intended to produce a set of accountability mechanisms pursuing the functional vision of democracy. Theoretically, citizens are given the necessary information about matters that affect their communes, they are then able to participate in public debate and discussions about certain issues and the citizens are required to be consulted on resulting decisions. Social programs such as poverty reduction initiatives, infrastructure projects and national social targets are made available to the local community to discuss. Citizens are able to sanction their local leaders by lodging complaints and denunciations and pointing to corrupt practices. However, Beutz makes the important point that the ability of the people to sanction their leaders in a functional democracy must co-exist with the freedoms of expression, association or assembly as well as other international human rights norms.116 A process of democratic change in Vietnam thus requires stronger protection for people to make denunciations and claims without being affected by the fear that any criticism of the government will lead to penal punishment.

Grassroots democracy is therefore a possible middle path to a functional vision of democracy. It can become a reality if the national political structures require greater accountability mechanisms and allow greater participation by the people in national politics. The push for democratic change in Vietnam as stated above depends on the political will of Communist Party members, there are, however, exogenous forces that may in the future persuade the Party to offer some political concessions. The international economic and trading dependencies and the imminent entry of Vietnam into the World Trade Organisation, means that political reforms will inevitably be on the agenda. The driving force for political reforms will be profound when the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement comes into full force in 2005. The open access to Vietnamese land, infrastructure and material wealth coupled with the increasing exposure to the globalised world may precipitate the Vietnamese people to question the role of the government and the political system in advancing Vietnamese interests. Having said that, it remains difficult to gauge whether any further political reforms from the Party will be forced upon it exogenously because in trade and commerce it is often easier in the short term to deal with an authoritarian regime for stability sake then having to factor political change.


A political analysis of Vietnamese democracy is hardly illuminating if it merely tries to explain why Vietnam is not, or could not become a democracy. Rather there should be attempts at trying to understand the political realities of society that informs a system of democracy.117 Democracy does not require objective structural conditions and as discussed throughout this paper a liberal world view of democracy is not suitable for every nation state. Vietnam as with countries in Asia holds certain endogenous values and cultures that shape its political system. International law does not require a particular electoral or political system. However, there are certain minimum standards of democracy and international human rights, particularly the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that must be respected for the minimum democratic standards to apply.

Vietnam has lived through decades of conflict and it is only recently that it is able to begin the slow process of reforming its system of administration to allow people to practice a form of democracy. Grassroots democracy is a positive step towards holding leaders accountable for their actions at the commune level and to ensure that the people are placed at the centre of the decision making process on issues that most concern them. It is over five years since the grassroots democracy Decree was introduced and it has allowed the people at the commune a new sense of empowerment entitling them to participate in affairs that concern their local community. However, the inconsistent implementation of the Decree and the absence of commitment to the process by many local leaders make the overall implementation disappointing.

The concept of democratic centralism makes any effort to decentralise government functions to the local authorities difficult. However, grassroots democracy has in a way tried to decentralise the work of the central government by allowing local communes and the people to take greater ownership in designing and managing social programs and infrastructure projects. One thing the grassroots democracy initiative has achieved is a change in leadership style by building the capacity of local leaders to become more participatory and to manage an open and clean local administration. The more the people know, the better they can discuss and contribute to the affairs of the community. Local authorities are however controlled by the provincial and Central Government. If grassroots democracy brings benefits at the local level, will this create a demand for greater democracy at higher levels of government?

As thing stands, changes in democracy and political reforms in Vietnam can only be made by the Communist Party. The Party has not expressed any interest in undertaking dramatic political changes in the near future. Maintaining political stability is the catch cry of many within the Party and this is likely to continue for some time. Grassroots democracy is a small but controlled concession made by the Party. It will be interesting to observe if small concessions might lead to calls for more sweeping reforms.


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I want to especially thank the staff at the Office of the National Assembly including Mr Nguyen Chi Dzung, Dr Nguyen Si Dung, Mr Hoang Minh Hieu and Mr Phung Van Hung iconDr. Sc. Hoang dinh tien, Dr. Pham huy long, Dr. Tran van xuan, Dr. Cu minh hoang

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