United Front
Projecting Solidarity through Deliberation in Vietnam’s Single-Party Legislature
Paul Schuler


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Introduction
chapter abstract

The introduction presents the book's central research question and the theory and evidence used to explore it: Why might the Vietnam National Assembly and some single-party legislatures be empowered with greater responsibilities and greater electoral competitiveness? Recent work suggests that legislative institutionalization demonstrates "resilient" or "consultative" authoritarianism, whereby autocrats can inform or constrain themselves through limited debate in a legislature and limited electoral competitiveness. This book challenges this view, arguing that single-party legislatures and elections do not inform or constrain autocrats but instead are meant to signal strength. When such legislatures are active, they are supposed to direct their activity against the autocrat's agents in the government. Elections serve to mobilize compliance with the regime. The theory of this book suggests that autocrats cannot simultaneously encourage input and signal strength through the same institutions. The introduction concludes with a preview of the chapters.

1 The Signaling Trap: Why Single-Party Legislatures Must Be Controlled
chapter abstract

This chapter examines existing explanations for the role of authoritarian legislatures and elections, raising questions about the applicability of these theories to Vietnam. It also lays out the book's core theoretical argument that while autocrats may use institutions such as legislatures and elections to achieve multiple goals, some goals are incompatible. In particular, if autocrats hope to use legislatures and elections to signal strength, this compromises their ability to use those same institutions to constrain or inform themselves. The chapter then argues that autocrats in single-party regimes are more likely to use legislatures and elections to signal strength at the expense of constraint or information provision because these institutions are publicly visible and state sanctioned. The chapter concludes with the observable implications of the argument for legislative organization, electoral behavior, delegate behavior, and public opinion.

2 How Elections Work in Vietnam
chapter abstract

This chapter lays out the structure of Vietnam's electoral system, highlighting some of the key institutions that block linkages between citizens and delegates. It focuses in particular on party management of campaigns and vetting institutions to show how the "five gates" system effectively keeps genuinely independent candidates from winning seats. The chapter shows how the regime further undermines the competitiveness of elections by manipulating the districts such that even candidates who survive vetting face bias in favor of the regime's preferred candidates. This chapter serves two purposes: providing important background on Vietnam's electoral institutions, and highlighting important institutions that facilitate the signaling value of elections and give the regime control over legislative behavior.

3 "Unconditional Party Government": Legislative Organization in the VNA
chapter abstract

This chapter examines legislative organization in the VNA, describing the extremely hierarchical system as "unconditional party government." Building from a theory of "conditional party government" to explain party control of legislatures in democracies, this chapter describes the extreme dominance of the VNA Standing Committee over legislative proceedings and agenda setting. Given the party's role in deciding who will serve on the Standing Committee and fill vital full-time roles in the legislature, the party ensures its control over legislative output and the legislative agenda. As with elections, party dominance of legislative output through the Standing Committee ensures that the VNA serves to signal strength to the population at the expense of the legislature's capacity to inform or constrain.

4 Explaining the Evolution of the VNA
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the institutionalization of the VNA to examine the argument that the Vietnam Communist Party empowered it to check the government rather than to constrain or inform the party leadership. Before defending this argument, which contradicts existing accounts of the development of authoritarian legislatures and the VNA, the chapter also establishes that the VNA is a most likely case for the competing arguments for authoritarian legislative institutionalization and a least likely case for the book's signaling argument. The chapter then defends the signaling argument by examining the role party leaders played versus those of political and economic reformers at critical moments when the legislature gained increased powers. An examination of the decisions to empower the legislature with greater staff, televised query sessions, and a regularized vote of confidence measure shows that it was the party leaders who supported the measures rather than economic liberalizers in the government.

5 Mobilized or Motivated? Voting Behavior in Vietnamese Elections
chapter abstract

This chapter examines how electoral institutions impact electoral behavior in a single-party regime. Existing work suggests that citizens in authoritarian regimes vote in a partially informed manner and provide information through their votes. By contrast, this chapter argues that party strength rather than voter interest drives electoral behavior. Using unique data from Vietnam, which for the first time combine actual electoral returns with district-level survey data, this chapter shows little evidence of strategic voting, competitiveness driving turnout, or knowledge of candidates. Instead, connection to the party drives participation. The findings imply that Vietnamese voters are ill informed about their candidates and that their votes contain little informational content. Consequently, elections are largely an exercise in mobilizing public compliance and support for the party.

6 Explaining Oversight Behavior: Position Taking or Position Ducking?
chapter abstract

This chapter examines legislative behavior in the VNA. The signaling and blame deflection theory of the book holds that the legislature should not criticize the party. By contrast, when the legislature is critical, it should direct its attention toward government leaders. Using an original dataset of public opinion data and legislative behavior, this chapter uses automated text analysis to show that the VNA only debates hot-button issues on government-controlled issues. When issues arise on party-controlled portfolios, the legislature is not called into action. The findings imply that the legislature does not primarily inform or constrain the party through legislative behavior but rather serves to damage rivals in the government.

7 Intimidation or Legitimation? The Signaling Value of the VNA
chapter abstract

A final implication of the book's signaling theory is that legislative behavior and elections should increase support for the party and reduce the likelihood of public resistance. Such an effect could operate through two potential channels. First, it could convince citizens that resistance is futile. Alternatively, it could convince citizens more directly to support the regime. Using an Internet-based survey experiment in Vietnam, this chapter shows that legislative behavior and elections seem to boost public confidence in the legitimacy of the legislature and the electoral process. This in turn leads to greater support for the party and satisfaction in the overall political environment in Vietnam.

Conclusion: Conclusion: Curbing our Expectations for the VNA, Single-Party Legislatures
chapter abstract

The conclusion examines the implications of the theory and findings for broader understanding of the role of legislatures in single-party and hybrid regimes outside Vietnam. This chapter argues that while elections for legislatures in hybrid regimes may be more informative than in single-party contexts, the importance of legislatures for policy outcomes is likely minimal in these contexts as well. The chapter then examines why such legislatures have been associated with improved investment and economic growth if they have little policy input. It suggests that one reason is that legislative closures are typically correlated with the process of consolidation, which hinders these outcomes. The chapter also considers the implications of the argument for theories of democratization and Vietnam's political development. It argues that while the VNA may facilitate a smoother transition should democratization occur, the VNA and other single-party legislatures are not likely to spearhead such a transition.