In the two decades after Doi Moi, reform had a distinctly Vietnamese character. Changes were enacted with a Communist Party-engineered, top-down reform approach centered on political decentralization and competition that complemented market-oriented reform. During this process, the party maintained its leadership role, proving rather resilient through its constant effort to renovate its socialist ideology and introduce an element of capitalism as it continued the country's transformation. The reforms worked, even though they might have been enacted primarily to pre-empt an emerging crisis and could be considered flawed by most Western standards.
Preserving Power Through Reform
Over the years, the Communist Party of Vietnam has introduced a number of political reforms focusing on the intraparty and state administrative system to give the government a kind of democratic appearance. Although the party remains the dominant player, the National Assembly, as stipulated by the 1992 constitution, was allowed greater power in the decision making process. Direct elections for the National Assembly have been carried out since the 1990s and even reached into the party ranks with some sort of competitive election for provincial party cadres, Central Committee members and even the general-secretary. Although these elections are not comparable to those in the West, they helped strengthen the party's representative qualities and legitimacy.
To bolster political transparency, the party also allowed inquiries and supervision within the party or National Assembly regarding key decisions and political appointments. Other reform attempts involved readjusting the state and subnational governments to allow for some provincial autonomy and input into the formation of national policies and for the operation of social organizations.
Perhaps the most profound change was the official allowance of factions within the party that could express different opinions and balance different interests under the principle of democratic centralism. This essentially made intraparty competition possible — a crucial step for a single-party regime to break its own monopoly from within. Moreover, after nearly a decade of intense ideological debate, the party officially introduced private entrepreneurship — essentially countering socialism — that shaped a new dynamic for party-business relations. Although it exacerbated corruption, this new policy nonetheless allowed the party to position itself as a leader for a private economy, enabling the subsequent expansion of privatization and liberalization reforms.
In fact, despite the party's gradual relinquishing of supremacy and promotion of a democratic appearance, these reforms largely were meant to preserve the single-party system with the Communist Party of Vietnam as the ultimate force promoting the changes. From the party's perspective, after the experiences of the Soviet Union and of China in 1989, constant reform is required when the party remains powerful and popular. This allows the party to steer reforms while reducing the possibility of being overthrown or of a violent transition with no prearranged political institution to take the regime's place.
Vietnam's communist peers saw its reform process as an example of a country's transformation that preserved the party's economic and political leadership without generating revolutionary sentiment among the public. The reforms attracted special attention from the Communist Party of China, which sought a way to make a stable political transformation without hurting the party's monopoly but was increasingly hampered by overwhelming bureaucratic interests and the fear of public discontent that eventually weakened the party.
Ideological Challenges and Vietnam's Future
Despite the success of the reforms, as they took hold, the party again found itself trapped in the contradiction between its socialist ideology and its commitment to a market economy. This conundrum has been particularly pronounced in the past three years, when economic disarray included drastic currency depreciation, sharply increasing inflation, soaring debts for state-owned enterprises and declining foreign investment. The Communist Party of Vietnam, at the center criticism over its economic management, increasingly felt as though its legitimacy was at stake. The party realized the need to accelerate structural reform, since it found that its commitment to maintaining one-party rule and an authoritarian system hindered further economic liberalization.
Critics of the party's economic management turned their focus to the political system and blamed the economic turmoil on the Communist Party of Vietnam's insufficient political liberalization and unwillingness to relinquish more power for a more democratic regime. This criticism was exacerbated by public discontent with official corruption and political suppression that led to sporadic unrest and highlighted political demands for the end of the party's monopoly. Abolishing the party's dominance has been a recurring topic of conversation among political dissidents and non-party academics in the past, but it again gained momentum with the growing call for the complete removal of Article 4 from the constitution, which cements the party's leadership role, to pave the way for a multiparty system. This corresponded with increasingly visible infighting within the party over its ideological guidance and path for reform.
These circumstances are the backdrop for Vietnam's current round of proposed constitutional amendments, including the potential change of the country's name. Besides promoting human rights, land ownership and political freedom, the constitutional draft appears to diminish the party's role in the state and society in order to prepare the party for coming socioeconomic changes. The name change to Democratic Republic of Vietnam, although still a proposal, could reflect the party's long-term desire to lessen its dogmatic adherence to socialism and re-evaluate other doctrines or systems to be able to transform the country further. At the same time, with Hanoi's perception of a long-term external threat from China, the possible name change would facilitate the Communist Party of Vietnam's foreign policy maneuver away from its socialist roots and eventually achieving rapprochement with the United States and other western countries.
The potential name change is by no means an indication that the party wants to give up its dominance and adopt a Western-style multiparty system, and the change could fall short of appeasing political demands from Vietnam's public. However, the proposed reforms reflect the party's perception that its political system must be prepared to meet the challenges of increasing reform and greater public awareness. To a degree, Vietnam's lack of an effective authoritarian tradition and the party's efforts to renovate its political system could allow some flexibility, but apparently the party feels it is in a race to increase the pace and scope of its political transformation to maintain balance.