After three months of public discussion of amendments to Vietnam's 1992 constitution, the country's political elite are navigating various proposals in hope of renewing the Communist Party of Vietnam's strength amid serious socioeconomic challenges. The proposals were submitted to the National Assembly for deliberation in May and are expected to be finalized by the end of 2013.
A draft proposal to change the country's name to the previously used Democratic Republic of Vietnam is among the changes being discussed. On the surface, this might appear to be merely a cosmetic move by the Communist regime. But in the context of Vietnam's ongoing reform plans and constitutional history, this move points to a more fundamental and pressing need for Vietnam to balance its ideological foundation with its need to adapt to economic and political pressure — and opportunities — in the international sphere.
More Than a Symbolic Move?
Former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh named the country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 in the country's Declaration of Independence. The name was solidified in the country's first — and widely considered democratic — constitution in 1946 to give the state a less communist-oriented appearance. At the time, the country was trying to integrate all non-Communist patriotic forces to achieve national unity and was attempting to appeal to the United States. However, the government quickly adopted a more communist-oriented constitution and political system under the North Vietnamese government (South Vietnam had its own constitutions after the split). Following reunification in 1976, the country's name was changed to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which cemented the country's affiliation with the communist bloc. The name also reflected the period of national transition to socialism, characterized by the centrally planned economy, collectivized industrial and agricultural production and the party's monopoly on state machinery in the north and the previously non-socialist south.
Denying that the potential name change would have any effect on Vietnam's socialist ideology or political system, the party has claimed that the change should be interpreted as a better reflection of the regime and of national sovereignty — in other words, prioritizing nationalism and a democratic appearance over party-centered socialism. However, publicly and even within the party, speculation has grown over the years regarding whether socialism and the single-party system are still effective in guiding the country's market-oriented political and economic reforms amid regional and international changes.
Vietnam is facing serious challenges regarding its economic management, mounting public discontent about officials' abuse of power and political suppression, and renewed geopolitical threats from China. Thus, the Communist Party of Vietnam — once the leading force in determining the country's course and guiding its transformation — feels greatly pressured to speed up its own transformation.
Central to the party's efforts are the constitutional amendments, which the party hopes to use to demonstrate its ability to keep up with shifting national priorities and its commitment to moving forward with market-oriented economic reform in response to political pressure from the public. The potential name change could be part of the Communist Party of Vietnam's efforts.
Vietnam in Transition: Reform and Constitutional Change
In a political system in a Communist regime, reforms and transformations either occur within the party and top political infrastructure or are outpaced by revolution from the bottom up. While the Communist Party of Vietnam retained considerable legitimacy during the nationalist fight against foreign domination and the legacy of Ho Chi Minh, its political elites were under constant pressure to ensure the survival of their regime as it transformed from revolutionary vanguard to ruling party. This was particularly true following the ideological crisis that accompanied the downfall of the communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc, along with Vietnam's own socioeconomic malaise after the reunification.
The history of Vietnam's Constitution — even though the document may not be strictly enforced — illustrates how the party's self-perception and ideology changes based on external and internal factors. The flexibility of the written constitution in a structure dominated by the Communist Party of Vietnam also allowed the country to make regular revisions to the document as a means of party renewal.
Replacing the more Western-style 1946 constitution, the 1959 constitution was drafted against the backdrop of an official split between North and South Vietnam and the United States' shift in backing the French colonists that forced North Vietnam to seek support from the communist bloc. The 1959 document was a drastic departure from its predecessor, incorporating communist dogma and phrases as a symbol of the official adoption of socialism in the North. But the constitution maintained a certain distance from the Soviet style in a bid to appeal to the South.
The 1980 constitution was drafted after reunification, when strong centralized direction was enacted to integrate the south. Moreover, by then Vietnam was facing a serious threat from China and isolation from the West after its invasion of Cambodia. This constitution contained Soviet-oriented communist ideology and emphasized the country's distance from China and the West. By stipulating that state power and economic activities almost exclusively rested on the party's interpretation of the law, the constitution provided ideological and practical guidelines for Vietnam's transition to socialism. But by the time the party enacted the constitution, the regime was already in a very difficult position because of flaws in the authoritarian power structures and the socioeconomic challenges that arose from the centralization of the economy.
In the years just before the 1980 constitution was adopted, Vietnam experienced a sharp decline in agricultural production under collectivization schemes, alongside the destabilization of industry and skyrocketing inflation as a result of the planned economy. By the 1980s, the Communist Party of Vietnam realized that continued economic stagnation and international isolation would eventually erode its legitimacy. To alleviate the crisis, subnational governments and groups — particularly in the country's south — attempted to break away from the socialist norm mandated in the north by informally allowing private land ownership and the sale of commodities outside of national control. These actions later became a trend, forcing the government to enact national policies recognizing the limitations of central planning and the potential benefits of a mixed economy that is not entirely controlled by the state. This paved the way for more comprehensive economic liberation, or Doi Moi, in 1986.
Doi Moi largely mirrored China's 1978 open-door policies under Deng Xiaoping. It embedded Vietnam's attempt at a "socialist-oriented market economy" with a renovation of the socialism framework, aiming for economic liberalization, political decentralization and opening Vietnam to the global market. The economy grew by an average of 8 percent annually, with significant poverty reduction and growing investment inflow, giving Vietnam bright economic prospects.
This transformation brought about the country's 1992 constitution, accompanied by intense contemplation within the party following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Largely following China's reform model, the Communist Party of Vietnam sought to enable a political transformation by renovating the socialist doctrine under the party's leadership. This was characterized by a gradual repeal of the party's direct control over socioeconomic affairs; increased autonomy and power for the government, the National Assembly, non-public social organizations and private sectors; and a greater separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers. These changes did not diminish the party's power but they did set the theme for political reforms throughout the 1990s and 2000s.