Over the past three decades, Vietnam's political system has played a unique role in leading the country's economic liberation, and Party elites have used internal reforms to adapt the political system and the Party's leadership to fit into the country's broader transformation. In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Party has actively explored ways to expand its political accountability and gradually reshape the Party's monopoly over state affairs. Vietnam's political process has proved to be more resilient than its forerunner in China and is characterized by a combination of competitive (but limited) elections for senior and local officials, a more powerful legislative branch and greater transparency in government actions. Because of this and the country's relatively strong economy over the past decade, public discontent against the Party has remained relatively low and there has been little threat of regime change.
In January, Vietnam began a public discourse on proposed amendments to the country's 1992 constitution. A draft of the amendments will be submitted to the National Assembly to be deliberated in a May legislative meeting and should be finalized by the end of 2013. Some of the proposed reforms include reshaping the country's guiding ideology, promoting human rights and the administration of justice, and redefining the functions of state agencies and leaders. Central to the public discussion is the Party's total control over the state and society, which is ensured in Article 4 of the 1992 constitution.
However, the debate on government reform has already resulted in some undesirable outcomes for the Party. In January, a group of 72 Vietnamese intellectuals, former Party members and political dissidents submitted their proposed constitutional draft to the National Assembly and published it on the Internet. The draft completely removed Article 4, redefined the army as a nonpolitical entity and attempted to pave the way for a multiparty system with free elections. The campaign, which essentially called for an end to the Party's political monopoly, garnered nationwide public attention and support from celebrities.
Perhaps unprepared for the move, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on Feb. 27 warned against posting such proposals on the Internet and ordered local government to restrain individuals from using the discussion of reforms to "oppose the Party and the state." The state media also published a series of articles detailing the official version of the proposed constitution amendments, which emphasize the Party's leadership role while still allowing for some mechanisms that could limit the Party's power.
The amendment process comes as Vietnam is facing mounting economic difficulties and social discontent, and the public is increasingly calling for structural reforms of the Party and the government. In 2012, on top of three consecutive years of double-digit inflation, depreciating currency and the massive ineffectiveness and skyrocketing debt of state-owned enterprises and banks, Vietnam experienced its lowest growth in gross domestic product in 13 years. This continued economic instability has put Vietnam's regional competitiveness at risk as the country has seen slowing foreign investment in recent years. The public has increasingly blamed the country's economic problems on government mismanagement and widespread corruption among officials and state-owned sectors.
Against this backdrop, Vietnamese leadership initiated a host of reform proposals in an effort to reinvigorate the stagnating economy and restore public confidence in the Party and the government. For example, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved a new master plan on economic restructuring for the 2013-2020 period. Though exact details are unclear, the plan prioritizes reorganizing public investment by allowing private investment in state banks and enterprises, increasing transparency and oversight in the financial sector, restructuring and reducing the number of state-owned enterprises, and redefining the state's control. The Party has also initiated a broad anti-corruption campaign. The National Assembly publicly approved amendments to the 2005 anti-corruption law, giving the Politburo control of the Anti-Corruption Steering Committee and shifting power from Dung — who was widely believed to be involved in corrupt practices — to the Party general secretary. The Party and government also brought attention to the arrest of prominent tycoon Nguyen Duc Kien and nine members of Vinashin, the largest state-owned shipbuilding company, which nearly went bankrupt in 2012.
Whether the proposed reforms will achieve the desired outcomes for the Party or the people remains to be seen, but the debate underscores the Party's need to enhance its legitimacy and secure its leadership. There are growing doubts about whether the Party can continue to lead the country's economic and political reform, particularly if that reform calls for an end to Party control of the government.
Though the Party in the past has been able to adapt to various internal reforms, there is nothing to suggest that it would be willing to give up its power in favor of a multiparty political system. In fact, the nature of the Vietnamese political system means reform at the top level must be initiated from within the government and the Party. The Party had hoped that by embracing reform, it could direct the country's development down a Party-oriented path and thereby strengthen its own control and credibility. However, the Party will inevitably need to allow public participation in the government to strengthen its legitimacy, which could lead to unprecedented scrutiny as political awareness and discontent grow and previously effective economic management tools are exhausted. With sources of internal pressure likely to increase, expectations for reform could begin to threaten the Party's supremacy.