Brad Adams is Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
While it’s still anyone’s guess who will win November’s presidential election in the United States, I can tell you with certainty — before a ballot is cast — who will win this year’s election in Vietnam. It will be Gen. Tran Dai Quang. I even know who the next prime minister will be. His name is Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Am I a prophet? No, the reality is much more prosaic. Last month the Communist Party of Vietnam held its 12th party congress and decided, as it does every five years, on its candidates for president and prime minister. In May, to keep up the pretense of genuine elections, the country will go through the process of formally electing a new National Assembly. This will be stage-managed by the Communist Party, with a few token non-party members — already announced to be between 25 and 50 people — allowed to take seats. According to the well-worn script, in July the assembly will select Quang as president, who will then nominate Phuc as prime minister.
Decisions about who will lead Vietnam are usually made in private well in advance of the party congress. But this year the contest between current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and incumbent Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong spilled into public view. It was an intense fight: The winner would hold the most important position in the country — general secretary of the Communist Party — and be able to issue instructions to the government, which is subordinate to the party. The loser would be forced into retirement.
In the end, Trong, the more conservative of the two candidates, emerged victorious. Even though a small group of party leaders chose the country’s next leaders — sidelining Vietnam’s 93 million citizens — Trong had the audacity to say that, “This congress is a congress that exhibits democracy, solidarity, discipline and wisdom.” Vietnam’s active social media community reacted with the humor and sarcasm for which it has become known. One Facebook user commented: “Yes, we have absolute freedom to vote for you.” Other commenters cited the famous poet Nguyen Duy’s line about the U.S. war in Vietnam: “Whichever side wins, the people still lose.”
Some observers will parse the fierce party fight for deeper meaning about the possibility of pluralism. Sadly, there is none, as the party has no intention of liberalizing. For proof, just think of the many pro-democracy campaigners in Vietnam’s prisons.
Ominously, the next president is the head of the notorious Ministry of Public Security, responsible for running Vietnam’s police state and arresting dissidents. In November, Quang boasted to the National Assembly that, from June 2012 until November 2015, “The police have received, arrested, and dealt with 1,410 cases involving 2,680 people who violated national security. . . . During this same period, opposition persons have illegally established more than 60 groups and organizations in the name of democracy and human rights, which have about 350 participants from 50 cities and provinces.”
Though they did not have a vote, the leadership contest kept many Vietnamese on the edge of their seats, highlighting the huge appetite for participating in the choice of their leaders. One might expect that the United States and European Union, which say that free and fair elections in neighboring countries such as Burma are required for closer relations and increased assistance, would support these aspirations by publicly calling for genuine multiparty elections in Vietnam. But the silence has been deafening.
For the Obama administration, its “rebalancing” of relations with Asian countries and its attempt to contain the rise of China has meant that its focus has been on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea and increased security cooperation. Democracy gets mentioned but is not a priority.
This week President Obama has a golden opportunity to inject some long-missing values into his much-trumpeted Asia policy. As host of the first U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit on U.S. soil, he should not only demand the release of all political prisoners but, standing side by side with the Vietnamese prime minister, also call for the country to follow Burma’s example and hold genuine multiparty elections. Decades of international pressure created the political space for the elections last year that allowed voters in Burma to decide who should govern the country. Obama should have the same aspirations for the people of Vietnam. And he should say it in no uncertain terms.