As a communist country, Vietnam’s legislative debates are not supposed to be must-see-TV. That is why what occurred on November 2, 2010, was so surprising. Leading up to that event, the state-run media had leaked stories that a major state-owned enterprise was more than US$4 billion in debt. The size of the debt was such that it nearly single-handedly caused Moody’s to downgrade Vietnam’s credit rating.1 In this context, a largely unknown legislator stood on the floor of the Vietnam National Assembly (VNA) and proposed a vote of no confidence in the prime minister: “[T]here is evidence of an effort to cover up wrongdoings and crimes that have caused massive losses of state money and resources. . . . On this basis. . . . I request a vote of confidence in the prime minister and some members of the government.”2
According to conventional wisdom, communist legislatures are supposed to be rubber stamps. Yet proposing a vote of no confidence in the second highest ranking member of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is anything but rubber stamp behavior. For this reason, Nguyen Minh Thuyet’s speech immediately attracted domestic and international media attention.3 Perhaps even more noteworthy is that Thuyet was never punished.
For scholars of other single-party legislatures, such as in China or the Eastern Bloc, such a public challenge of a party leader by a low-ranking official is a rarity. Furthermore, in those cases where delegates do dissent, they are often punished (Allmark 2012). For example, some members of Eritrea’s unelected legislature challenged the president’s consolidation of power and demanded major political reforms (Hedru 2003). Similarly, in Syria, during the “Damascus Spring” a delegate called for multiparty politics on the floor of the legislature. What is notable is that in both these cases the regime leaders clearly did not welcome the comments, and the speakers were jailed or killed (Hedru 2003).4 These were clearly cases in which legislators acted in ways not intended by the regime.
In Vietnam, the fact that Thuyet made the speech, had the opportunity to make the speech, and was not punished for making the speech raises several questions about our understanding of Vietnam’s legislature and single-party legislatures more broadly. How did the VNA evolve so that Thuyet had the opportunity to make a speech on live television? Given the opportunity, why did he make such a provocative speech when so many others in the legislature remained silent? Finally, who within the regime could possibly gain from his speech?
This book addresses these questions by examining legislative behavior, legislative institutionalization, and legislative elections under single-party rule. By single-party rule, I mean regimes sometimes also referred to as “closed” (Diamond 2002), in which all opposition parties are banned. Although the number is lower than during the Cold War era, thanks to China, more than one-sixth of the world’s population still lives under single-party rule. Given that two of the remaining single-party regimes, Vietnam and China, have been among the fastest-growing countries in the world for the past two decades, understanding governance in these systems is of profound interest. Furthermore, a growing literature on authoritarian regimes suggests that legislatures can facilitate economic growth. This raises the question: Have Vietnam and China managed to design legislatures that provide the supposed benefits of a democratic assembly without allowing even nominal opposition parties to run?
Our current understanding of legislative behavior and institutionalization under single-party rule comes from two sources. The first is work on hybrid regimes, which combine elements of autocracy with multiparty elections. Research in this vein challenges classic studies of the Eastern Bloc contending that legislatures play peripheral roles (White and Nelson 1982; Fainsod 1963). Revisionist views from research on hybrid regimes suggest that such legislatures may do far more. In particular, legislatures may co-opt and placate potential opponents (Gandhi 2008; Gandhi and Przeworski 2006; Bonvecchi and Simison 2017).5 The general argument from the hybrid literature is that authoritarian legislatures assist the regimes in improving performance by providing some level of constraint on the autocrat (Gandhi 2008; Gehlbach and Keefer 2012; Warshaw 2012; Wright 2008).
Responding to the preceding work, a second cluster of publications has emerged from research on China that is potentially more relevant for single-party Vietnam. These scholars argue that co-optation is not possible when opposition parties are banned (Truex 2016; Lu, Liu, and Li 2019). They suggest that single-party legislatures instead provide information about citizens’ preferences to autocrats so that they can make more informed policy decisions (Truex 2016; Manion 2016). This argument fits with a more general observation that China increasingly relies on consultation mechanisms to improve governance (Bell 2015; Teets 2013; Tsang 2009; He and Thogersen 2010; Gueorguiev 2014). Indeed, Xi Jinping has made “socialist consultative democracy” a cornerstone of his rule in China (He and Warren 2017). This view fits within a growing number of theories suggesting that quasi-democratic institutions are designed to provide information (Lorentzen 2014, 2013; Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin 2009; Little, Tucker, and LaGatta 2015).
At first blush, the information argument offers some compelling answers to the questions raised in this book. First, it may help explain why the ruling VCP reformed the VNA starting in the 1980s so that delegates like Thuyet could raise their voices. Given that the VCP also instituted a number of economic reforms at the same time, it seems plausible that the party liberalized the legislature in order to gain more information from society to improve economic governance and the overall investment environment. As this book discusses, the fact that the economy improved following these reforms and that the VCP has maintained power suggests that these efforts were successful. If this is true, a plausible explanation is that Thuyet was allowed to make the speech because he was providing the type of information the party wanted. By highlighting governance failures perpetrated by the government, he alerted the party to grave transgressions that negatively impacted citizens.
While both theories are plausible, a number of puzzles arise when we apply either theory to Vietnam. First, despite the correlation between legislative reform in Vietnam and its dramatic economic growth, it is not clear that active legislatures in democracies or autocracies cause economic growth or improvements in public goods outcomes. Indeed, research on democracies suggests that although strong legislatures may constrain confiscation by executives irrespective of the size of the deficit, budget deficits may actually increase when legislatures have strong budgetary authority (Wehner 2009). Consistent with this finding, studies on local legislatures in Vietnam actually show that governance improved when they were eliminated (Malesky, Nguyen, and Tran 2014).
A second concern is how or why the VNA would actually represent citizen interests. As this book emphasizes, even in Vietnam, which features a more robust electoral connection between citizens and national-level legislators than nearly all other past or present single-party legislatures, the electoral connection remains weak. All candidates, whether party or non-party members, are vetted by the party. Candidates for office are not allowed to campaign or to advertise their policy positions. There are also limits on how many incumbents may run. Given the hurdles that even democracies face in generating informed participation by their citizenry, why should we believe that citizens in Vietnam take their votes seriously? Following from this, if citizens do not take their votes seriously, what incentives do legislators have to represent the wishes of their citizens?
On this point, existing work suggests that nonelectoral incentives such as solidary group membership (Tsai 2007) or the threat of revolution (Dickson 2016; Tang 2016) could drive responsiveness. It is thus possible that legislators could be influenced by nonelectoral incentives. However, if this is the case, what is the purpose of a legislature? Bureaucrats, local officials, and party members should also be susceptible to these pressures without needing legislators to push them.
Alternatively, top-down incentives could drive responsiveness from legislators in the same way that cadre evaluations structure bureaucratic behavior (Truex 2016). Theoretically, the regime could reward those lawmakers who accurately reflect the wishes of citizens. However, if the purpose of legislators is to provide information, how can the regime know when to sanction a lawmaker unless there is a credible electoral signal suggesting that person is not performing his or her duties? Put another way, if the regime has enough information to punish the legislator for not performing those duties, why have the lawmaker in the first place?
An additional puzzle pertains to the utility of using a legislature as a way of generating information. Authoritarian regimes have a variety of other means of gaining information, such as petitions (Heurlin 2016), online notice and comment (Stromseth, Malesky, and Gueorguiev 2017), the media (Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin 2009; Lorentzen 2014), and even protests (Lorentzen 2013). As chapter 1 of this book discusses, some of these institutions possess significant advantages in their ability to provide information compared to legislatures. Unlike legislative input, information provided through online comments or petitions will be private and therefore less likely to spark antiregime collective action. Given these options, single-party regimes like the VCP should resort to those less public channels rather than the legislature to gather information.6
A final puzzle relates to the informational utility of legislatures in general. Even in democratic contexts, scholars are skeptical that speeches and legislative hearings are actually intended to inform policy makers (Proksch and Slapin 2015, 2012). Furthermore, the informational models of legislative institutions are largely meant to explain how legislatures cope with their informational deficiencies. These arguments do not suggest that legislatures are optimal information provision devices (Krehbiel 1991). Committees and legislative staff do not constitute evidence that legislatures are useful information providers. Instead, they are mechanisms designed to mitigate the fact that executive agencies are better placed to have access to good information than is the legislature.
With these concerns in mind, there is much at stake in correctly understanding the role of the VNA and single-party legislatures more generally. It is certainly the case that some single-party regimes have succeeded, at least based on the twin metrics of economic growth and longevity. Furthermore, it is also the case that some of these successful countries, like Vietnam, have partially reformed their legislative institutions. However, attributing that success to the partial reform of these institutions runs the risk of incorrectly validating a key plank of the “China model”: the notion that legislatures with debate but without contestation provide tangible benefits for both the regime and citizens. Before reaching such a conclusion, it is worth assessing how well this argument stands up to scrutiny even in a most likely case such as Vietnam.
This book challenges the revisionist view that single-party legislatures improve policy performance by constraining the autocrat or by providing information. The central argument of this book is that the purpose of legislatures in single-party regimes is first and foremost to signal authoritarian dominance and legitimacy. Similar to arguments made about the role of propaganda (Huang 2015, 2018), I argue that overwhelming regime victories, nearly universal turnout, and nearly unanimous support for even controversial laws signal dominance and provide legitimacy. Because of this support, these institutions are ultimately unable to fulfill the roles revisionist theories ascribe to them. This is because providing unwelcome information, even on nonsensitive issues, or checking the autocrat would undermine the signal the regime is attempting to send.7
The fundamental problem is that to perform their signaling function, representative institutions must be public. If they are not, legislatures are simply inferior duplications of other tools the regime has at its disposal. For this reason, single-party legislatures and elections are unsuitable for the other functions previously mentioned. To stabilize power sharing or provide information, the legislature must act as a check on the regime or at least have an independent voice. To stabilize power-sharing arrangements or co-opt opponents, either elites or outsiders must be willing to challenge the prerogatives of the autocrat. For information provision, they must also be willing to bring unpleasant facts before the regime (Wintrobe 1998). Performing any of these roles would ultimately undermine the public signal the legislature is intended to send.
This is why although single-party leaders often express the desire for greater activity from legislators, these same leaders ultimately refrain from using their power to make the necessary reforms to encourage such behavior. Julius Nyerere, ruler of single-party Tanzania in the 1960s, lamented that legislators demonstrated a “failure to make more than minimal use of their prerogative to criticize in the Assembly” (Hopkins 1970, 763). In Vietnam, General Secretary Do Muoi also chastised the VNA for its docility (Turley 1993, 264). I argue that such failures are structural, not the fault of nervous legislators. If these leaders had really wanted more independent legislatures, they could have made structural changes to the electoral and legislative system to generate them. This book explains why they did not.
So far, my argument is simple. Although I provide new evidence to support my view, it has similarities to classic work on single-party representative institutions from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. However, like this classic literature, my argument faces important challenges. A first question is: If such legislatures are used for signaling purposes, why do some regimes nonetheless enact reforms that increase the apparent activity of legislators? Vietnam, as this book shows, did reform its legislature to be more visible and active. Why?
I argue that the reason lies in the structure of executive authority and the impact this has had on the incentive for the autocratic leaders within the party to use the legislature to damage rivals and deflect blame for policy failures. Although some research acknowledges the possibility of “fragmented authoritarianism,” in which the ruling party is not united, much of scholarship focuses on either unintended fragmentation due to factionalism or bureaucratic infighting (Lieberthal and Lampton 1992; Truex 2018; Lu, Liu, and Li 2019), and it does not consider contexts wherein autocrats may formally delegate authority to the government over some issue portfolios. In communist regimes, such as China, the debate over delegation takes place within the context of discussions of the separation between the party and the state. In the 1980s, the ruling parties in both Vietnam and China considered a greater separation of the party and the state as a way of improving bureaucratic efficiency. In China from 1980 to 1989, Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang worked to separate the party from direct management of economic reforms (Shirk, 1993, 62–68). However, this drive for separation stopped after the Tiananmen crisis (Shirk 1993, 67–68).
While the attempt at separation stalled in China, in Vietnam, much like in Iran, the “autocrat,” which in Vietnam’s case refers to the party leadership, delegates significant independent authority to the government. Therefore, some within the party find it advantageous to embolden the legislature to deflect blame for poor performance onto the government without attacking the party. By doing so, the legitimacy of the party and the legislature is bolstered by redirecting criticism for poor performance onto the government. In other single-party regimes, however, where delegation is more superficial, the party has no incentive to empower a third body to publicly hold the government to account. This is because the government and the party are ultimately united.8
A second question for my theory is: Why are single-party legislatures associated with economic growth and political stability if they are so ineffectual? As I discuss in the conclusion, one possible reason is that nearly all single-party systems have legislatures. Therefore, it is just as likely that the effect of legislatures on outcomes is a result of the peculiar conditions in countries without legislatures. As I also discuss in the conclusion, most countries without legislatures are simultaneously undergoing regime consolidation, which occurs alongside violence and instability that could cause poor economic performance. Therefore, legislatures themselves may bring few benefits. It is the instability associated with the lack of a legislature that cannot be controlled for with standard control variables that leads to the supposed benefits of an authoritarian legislature.9
My argument speaks to the ambiguous effects a more active legislature may have on performance. If the purpose of the legislature is not to provide information but rather to burnish the image of the party and throw blame on the government, it is not clear that legislatures necessarily improve performance. If we assume legislatures represent party interests rather than citizen interests, whether or not legislatures improve outcomes ultimately depends on the capabilities and intentions of actors within party, legislative, and government institutions. If government institutions are the locus of the main policy experts, empowering legislative activity may actually undermine performance.
I also suggest that using the legislature and elections to signal party dominance limits the ability of the legislature to generate meaningful, credible information. Critically, this does not mean that some inside or outside the party do not believe that the legislature actually provides meaningful information. Indeed, scholars suggest that Mikhail Gorbachev may have believed previous docile debates in the Supreme Soviet were evidence of a supportive public. The Communist Party’s routine victories and the ability to control behavior in the Supreme Soviet may have led the “Leninist romantic” Gorbachev to believe that repression was not necessary to control the Supreme Soviet, perhaps factoring into his reforms, which ultimately contributed to the demise of the regime (McCormick 1996, 46). To the extent that such docile debates dupe the leadership, this speaks to the possibility that legislative debate actually distorts information for both citizens and regime leaders.
My theory also has implications for our broader understanding of authoritarian politics. In some quarters, in the literature on both Vietnam and authoritarianism more broadly, there is a growing skepticism of the role of such representative institutions (Pepinsky 2014). Alongside this critique is the suggestion that the study of such institutions has come at the expense of more important, repressive institutions (Art 2012; Greitens 2016). However, as my study shows, quasi-democratic institutions need not always be considered the velvet glove of the state, but instead, as Slater (2003) calls it, the “iron cage in an iron fist” (emphasis added). Rather than seeing such representative institutions as deliberative or consultative, this book ultimately casts them as signaling tools to demonstrate unity and strength (Schedler and Hoffman 2016; Simpser 2013). Furthermore, much like propaganda, the ultimate purpose is not to represent but to shape public opinion (Huang 2018, 2015; Wedeen 2015).
The signaling theory previously described is meant to apply specifically to single-party regimes. Some elements of the argument may also apply to hybrid regimes, and where they do, I highlight this. My concluding chapter in particular deals with the issue of generalizability. However, it is important to note that single-party regimes differ from hybrid regimes in important ways that impact how the legislature will behave. Most important, as Truex (2016) notes, the lack of opposition parties means that co-opting meaningful opposition through a legislature will not be possible; instead, opposition will be co-opted through party institutions. However, the lack of opposition parties also generates other differences from hybrid regimes. Most notably, the lack of opposition parties means that it will be difficult for legislative actors to provide information or check the autocrat and simultaneously signal regime strength. This is because when all the legislators are either party members or vetted by the party, criticism directed at the party could be seen as a potential cleavage within the party.
Because my argument is tailored to single-party regimes, a natural question is why we should care, given the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant evaporation of a large number of single-party regimes. Indeed, the number of single-party regimes has dwindled to a handful (Diamond 2002; Magaloni and Kricheli 2010).10 Yet despite their endangered status, the inner workings of these regimes remain important for a number of reasons. First, single-party regimes remain the most resilient, stable form of authoritarianism in terms of duration since the end of World War II (Brownlee 2009; Smith 2005). While the Soviet Union collapsed, it still lasted more than seventy years, a remarkable period of time for an authoritarian regime. The remaining single-party regimes in existence today show similar signs of durability, despite widely varying degrees of economic performance. What explains the endurance of these regimes? Existing literature suggests that legislatures, which they all have, figure importantly into their longevity (Svolik 2012; Gandhi 2008).
A second reason that understanding the interaction between legislatures and single-party rule is important is the implications it has for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. While a number of theories have emerged to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union (Kalyvas 1999; Kuran 1991; Lohmann 1994; Roeder 1995; Beissinger 2002), the reasons remain contested. More important, some research suggests that the Soviet Union’s and Poland’s attempts to reform their legislative electoral systems played a role in the unraveling of communism in both of those countries (Kaminsky 1999; Marples 2015). Indeed, in the Soviet Union, the decision in 1989 to allow for the first time competitive elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies and the televising of legislative sessions transfixed the nation but also challenged Gorbachev’s control of the reform process (Marples 2015, 66). If China and Vietnam truly have reformed their legislatures, even if only to a limited degree, how have they succeeded where the Soviet Union and Poland failed?
Finally, despite the few remaining single-party regimes, two of them—China and Vietnam—present seemingly attractive models for the developing world. While China has been historically reticent to promote itself as a model for the developing world, in recent years it has more confidently owned the “China model” label. Indeed, He Yafei, a former vice minister of foreign affairs in China, recently wrote that the “success of the ‘Chinese model’ . . . offers other developing countries an option different from the ‘American model’ for economic development.”11 A key component of the Chinese model is the marriage of capitalist economics with sharp restrictions on political contestation. If China and Vietnam continue to grow at their present rapid rates, other countries may increasingly look to their single-party systems as an advantage rather than a hindrance.
THE VIETNAM NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
I examine my theory in the context of Vietnam. Vietnam is an important case for two primary reasons. First, within scholarship on Vietnam, debate exists about the role the VNA plays in governance. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two poles in research on Vietnamese politics. At one extreme are those who dismiss the importance of any state institutions whatsoever for political outcomes. This view downplays the importance of party congresses (Gainsborough 2007; Fforde and de Vylder 1996) and the state (Fforde and de Vylder 1996; Fforde 2009; Gainsborough 2010) in driving policy making. This fits in with a wider segment of the literature that focuses more on societal or grassroots factors than on institutions in explaining political outcomes. This literature emphasizes “everyday resistance” as the primary driver of politics (Kerkvliet 2005; Scott 1990; Kerkvliet 1995).
Logically, this perspective suggests that the role of the VNA is minimal and therefore ignores it when analyzing Vietnamese political and economic reforms. Some take this argument further and challenge the notion that the VNA should even be studied at all. Gainsborough is the clearest proponent of this view: “[We should] ask ourselves whether it is meaningful and/or helpful to debate whether Vietnam’s National Assembly is becoming a more effective law-making body or whether we think this is a distraction from politics as it really is” (2018, 19). From this perspective, not only does the VNA not matter, but the mere study of the institution distracts from “real” politics, which lies elsewhere.
At another pole, perhaps reflecting the maligned “old institutionalism” in political science (March and Olsen 1984), much of the Vietnamese-language literature describes Vietnam’s formal political institutions in great detail. This literature discusses the intricacies of the Election Law and the Law on the Organization of the National Assembly (D. D. Nguyen 1992, 2007; Bui 2007).12 Although this work sometimes presents stinging criticisms of the actual functioning of such institutions, ultimately it ignores the politics of institutional design. In advocating reforms to strengthen the actual functioning of the legislature, these authors are largely silent as to the coalitions within the regime that have blocked such reforms in the past.13
Between these poles, other work on Vietnamese political institutions does note generally that the legislature has become more active, while cautioning that the party remains dominant (Turley 1993; London 2014; Womack 1997; Porter 1993; Dang and Beresford 1998; Bui 2007; D. S. Nguyen 2017). This work tends to highlight evidence of increased activity since the economic reform era, suggesting a teleological “increasing assertiveness” (Malesky 2014). This formulation implies that eventually the legislature will become genuinely assertive. Typical of this approach, one scholar suggests: “Although it meets only twice a year, for about three weeks, the 395-member National Assembly has become increasingly vocal under doi moi [Vietnam’s economic reforms in 1986], enhancing the possibility that it will vie with the VCP for political power” (Rose 1998, 100). Another notes: “Even though [the VNA] continues to fall short of the constitutional ideal, we should expect more from this body in the future; it holds the key to political reform in Vietnam” (Abuza 2001, 103).
Taken together, these accounts leave scholars with several puzzles that merit a closer examination of the VNA. First, should the VNA or political institutions in Vietnam be taken seriously, or even be studied at all? Second, how should we interpret the activity of the legislature more specifically? Finally, what factors should inhibit or promote change to the VNA? The fact that the VCP remains in power and that the number of non-party members in the legislature has declined more than twenty years after the cited observers predicted “more to come” from the VNA suggests a need for a closer look at the logic of institutionalization.
A CRUCIAL CASE
The second reason to study the VNA pertains to research design. I argue that the VNA constitutes a most likely case for some of the theories this book challenges and a difficult case for my signaling argument. Among single-party legislatures, Vietnam’s is one of the most active and most visible in a single-party regime since World War II. Furthermore, its increase in activity coincides with Vietnam’s remarkable economic development, seeming to support revisionist arguments that single-party legislatures can improve governance. Consistent with the logic of a “crucial” or “most likely” case, if any legislature in a single-party regime could be construed as a meaningful political player, it should be Vietnam’s. By contrast, if we do not see the theorized dynamics at play in Vietnam, this suggests that we need to revise the theories and empirical relationships used to support such theories (Gerring 2007; Eckstein 1975).
This book relies on several different sources of data collected over more than ten years. First, it takes advantage of survey data collected from the Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administrative Performance Index (UNDP 2017). These data provide information on participation in elections, participation in meetings with VNA delegates, and knowledge of VNA candidates. They are used primarily to examine voting behavior. In addition, the book contains original observational data on delegate speeches and biographical characteristics, which are used to examine institutional design and delegate behavior. Chapter 7 uses an original, Internet-based survey to examine the signaling role of the legislature on public opinion.
Throughout each chapter, I also bolster my arguments with qualitative information collected through thirty-two interviews conducted intermittently between 2007 and 2018. With the exception of one interview done in La Jolla, California, all of these interviews took place in Vietnam. The interviewees include former VNA delegates. Others are members of the Office of the VNA or VNA committees, journalists who cover the VNA, or government officials who have worked closely with the VNA. Because the interviews were conducted on background only, I do not include the interviewees’ names in the book.
This book has been written with three audiences in mind. First, I hope it will appeal to those interested in the role of representative institutions in authoritarian regimes broadly. Second, I hope to engage scholars of Vietnamese politics and society. Third, given the profound interest inside and outside Vietnam on China, where possible I engage scholarship on Chinese political institutions. I am mindful that certain topics will be of greater interest to some audiences than others. While I believe that scholars of Vietnam will find some of the theoretical discussion of authoritarian representative institutions compelling, and that political science and China scholars may find the details of the Vietnamese case illuminating, I am also cognizant that some may wish to focus on the portions of the book of greatest interest to them.
Therefore, I have attempted to organize the book in such a way that while it can be read in order, those who are interested in certain portions can skip to chapters that most interest them. In that vein, Chapter 1 starts with a general discussion on authoritarian legislatures, in which I provide a general theory of single-party representative institutions, which I contrast with existing literature on the subject. This chapter will have greatest relevance for those interested in the general theoretical implications of the book and how I differentiate my analysis of single-party legislatures from existing revisionist accounts. While some conversant in Vietnamese politics may find the theory presented intuitive and perhaps not particularly controversial, it may be more relevant to scholars of authoritarian and Chinese political institutions.
The book then moves to a description of the case and an empirical analysis. Chapters 2 and 3 provide an explanation of the current electoral and legislative institutions that are fundamental for understanding the degree of party control over the VNA. These chapters may be of interest to Vietnam specialists. Those interested in the general argument may focus on these chapters as reference material.
Moving on to my argument and responding to concerns about functionalist explanations of authoritarian institutions, chapter 4 then shows how the VNA acquired these roles. Using existing theory about when and why legislatures are supposed to acquire additional powers under single-party rule, the chapter shows that information provision and providing a constraint on the party were not the goals of the legislative reformers. Rather, the increased institutional powers were initially designed so that opponents of economic reforms in party institutions could challenge proponents of economic reforms in the government. Later, party leaders used the VNA to throw blame on the government for governance failures. While this chapter should appeal to generalists interested in institutional change, it provides an alternative argument for the evolution of the VNA that should interest Vietnam specialists as well.
With the institutional features of the VNA and the historical background laid out, the following three chapters examine the degree to which the current functioning of the VNA corresponds with the logic of the institutional designers. Chapter 5 matches unique survey data on participation in elections in Vietnam to actual election returns to show that candidate knowledge plays little role in participation in legislative elections. Rather, consistent with the theory, electoral behavior is driven by party mobilization. This suggests that elections, even in Vietnam, do not generate significant citizen interest but rather serve to demonstrate the ability of the party to mobilize the vote. Chapter 6 turns to legislative behavior. Using a combination of automated text analysis and cases of specific debates, this chapter shows that debates on hot button issues in the VNA, such as the Vinashin case, do not result from bottom-up citizen frustration but rather because party leaders mobilize proxies in the legislature to challenge government officials.
Chapter 7 tests the argument that elections and legislative behavior do in fact signal strength or legitimacy to the population. Using an online survey of Vietnamese citizens, this chapter shows that information about VNA activities increases the perception that the legislature is a competitively elected, meaningful institution. This in turn leads to an improved assessment from citizens. This suggests that the signaling role of the legislature does shift public opinion in a direction that favors the regime. However, in combination with the findings from Chapter 5, this shift in public opinion is not sufficient to generate meaningful participation in the elections themselves. In short, elections signal that the regime is legitimate but do not encourage citizens to engage with it meaningfully.
Finally, in the conclusion I examine the generalizability of my argument and its implications for Vietnam. I discuss how single-party regimes like Vietnam’s differ from the more numerous hybrid regimes, which allow nominal opposition parties to compete. While this difference is important for the consequences of elections, I suggest that some theories developed in this book also apply to behavior in hybrid legislatures. Through the ability to control the agenda, legislative leaders in single-party and hybrid regimes alike can effectively shut out the opposition. In the conclusion I suggest that contrary to existing theory, the only truly constraining or binding legislatures that may exist in the authoritarian world occur in monarchies, military regimes, or unconsolidated personalist regimes, where the executive may not fully control the legislature. This suggests that the theories contained in this book about the relative inability of the legislature to check the autocrat should apply outside the case of Vietnam.
Also in the conclusion, I offer some thoughts about what insights the theory and findings generate for our understanding of Vietnam’s recent political past and its future. Contrary to many accounts of Vietnamese political reform, I argue that the liberalization of the VNA did not result from the efforts of those commonly associated with Vietnam’s economic reforms. Rather, opponents of economic reforms pushed to increase the visibility of the VNA. Furthermore, the goal was not to advance greater debate but rather to manage an increasingly independent government apparatus. Given recent efforts by the VCP to exert direct control over the state, such as by consolidating the position of the presidency and the general secretary, the role of the VNA may diminish in coming years (Schuler and Truong 2019).
1. The Associated Press, “Moody’s Cuts Vietnam Rating Amid Vinashin Crisis,” San Diego Union Tribune, December 15, 2010, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-moodys-cuts-vietnam-rating-amid-vinashin-crisis-2010dec15-story, amp.html.
2. Nguyen Minh Thuyet, speech delivered to the Vietnam National Assembly, November 1, 2010 (VNA online archives, http://quochoi.vn).
3. For example, see James Hookway, “Vietnamese Premier Faces Fallout on Vinashin,” Wall Street Journal, November 2, 2010, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703778304575589980974179868.
4. David Schenker, “Silencing the Opposition,” Weekly Standard, February 12, 2008, https://www.weeklystandard.com/david-schenker/silencing-the-opposition.
5. There are a number of other explanations, discussed in chapter 1.
6. One possible rebuttal is that legislators could provide feedback to the regime in private. Unfortunately, without the ability to monitor legislators’ comments, citizens will be unable to verify that their activity reflects the citizens’ interests. Therefore, comments generated through these private channels should not differ from bottom-up feedback the regime receives through other private channels such as state-linked journalists (Schoenhals 1985; Dimitrov 2017) or internal polls, which many single-party regimes past and present rely or have relied on.
7. This argument also bears similarities to other research demonstrating the importance of elections (Simpser 2013; Magaloni 2006; Blaydes 2011) and parties (Geddes 2005) signaling strength to deter support for the opposition. At the same time, as chapter 1 discusses, there are important differences between this book and the existing work, particularly with regard to the role played by legislative institutions and rent distribution. In addition, the theory in this book pays closer attention to potential contradictions in achieving divergent outcomes through the same institution.
8. A possible criticism of this argument is that citizens may not be able to distinguish between the party and the government broadly, even when there is a formal separation. As I discuss in chapter 1 and the other empirical chapters, while citizens may not distinguish between the two in the abstract, the separation does allow for the possibility that the autocrat can blame the head of the government without undermining confidence in the autocrat and the autocratic institutions.
9. As I discuss in the conclusion, regime age does not adequately control for consolidation because the length of time the consolidation process takes varies from case to case. In fact, the opening of the legislature may be a more consistent measure than regime age of the end of consolidation across cases. Other forms of instability such as coups and violence may be picked up, but at present other forms of instability, such as purges, are not consistently measured.
10. Remaining major single-party regimes include China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, Eritrea, and North Korea. Other post–Cold War single-party regimes that have subsequently allowed additional parties include Turkmenistan (1991–2014), Kazakhstan (1991–2012), and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
11. See Bonnie Girard, “Is There Really a ‘China Model?,’” Diplomat, July 13, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/is-there-really-a-china-model/.
12. Interestingly, an opponent of studying the legislature also offers a view that fits in this perspective. Gainsborough (2005), arguing that researchers should take the VNA “on its own terms,” examines communication between the party and voters to discuss the messages that the former attempts to transmit to the latter. Similar to old institutionalist work, this perspective takes the form of communication as given without accounting for how the communication style has evolved or whether it achieves its aims.
13. One important exception is Huy Duc’s (2012) journalistic account of postwar politics. Although it does not provide a “theory” of Vietnamese politics, it does provide rare insight into the personal and institutional logic of institutional change in Vietnam. Chapter 4 in this book owes a great deal to Duc’s work.