The country of Vietnam is standing on the threshold of the most remarkable change in history. Freedom for the Vietnamese people and Democracy for our whole society. Facing this historical moment, what have we as individuals and organizations prepared to contribute to building the country’s democratic institution? Looking to the neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Thailand, which have had Democracy for decades, we cannot help but worry and distrust. Farther in space but closer in time to building democratic institutions are the countries of the “Arab Spring,” especially Egypt, a land of chaos and hidden instability. Ukraine and Russia, which have transformed into democratic institutions from the sudden and rapid collapse of Communist regimes, are unstable and fragile. According to a survey of the state of Democracy in 167 countries and an attempt to quantify the index of Democracy conducted by the magazine The Economist in the UK, only 28 countries were assessed as having a complete democracy index, 53 countries with defective democratic institutions, 29 countries with mixed political institutions, 54 countries with totalitarian regimes. A broader assessment, among more than 150 countries, which have all the institutions of a democracy such as democratic constitution, political parties (pluralism, multi-party), separation of powers, freedom of speech, of the press, association, and assembly, but only about 30 countries are considered liberal democracies. The rest, more than 120 countries, are said to have only electoral Democracy. Why do all countries have the same democratic institutions, but more than 2/3 do not have absolute freedom of the people?!? With such a rate, when Vietnam transitions to Democracy, will we squeeze into the top 30 liberal democratic countries, or will we remain among more than 120 countries with only Democracy in the election? Granted, the transition from the Communist totalitarian regime to a defective democracy (elective Democracy) was a significant step forward for the Vietnamese people. People will have much more freedom and a much higher standard of living than they did in the old regime. But who forbids us, the people of Vietnam, to find out about the shortcomings and missings in the current democratic institutions and how other people built the present democratic institutions in the world so that we can overcome these problems, those defects, and shortcomings, to create a genuine liberal democracy for the country of Vietnam.
Building a democratic institution to bring about freedom and Democracy is a huge challenge. First of all, it is the unique challenge of Vietnam, with all its difficulties and advantages in building a great democracy. But the challenge is much more significant, that is, to overcome the harmful trench of the way many democratic institutions are now in the world.
I/Vietnam’s specific challenges in the process of building democratic institutions
Vietnam is a country with a totalitarian communist regime. But there is a difference compared to the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries before the collapse; Vietnam has had a long time integrating with the world. The economy has been exposed and familiar with the market economy, international relations have opened up, people’s awareness has changed thanks to this process. However, in terms of politics, the Vietnamese government has monopolized the country’s leading with a Communist party. Also, because of this political monopoly, with the intervention of politics in all fields (although the method of intervention is different from before), the Vietnamese economy has gone bankrupt, the authority severely repressed Vietnamese society, and the fall of the Vietnamese Communist regime was in sight. The consequences of having only one political party (the Communist Party of Vietnam) were disastrous in the context of the regime’s collapse with no alternative political force.
1/ Big challenge – no alternative political force
We all know that when a regime collapses and if there is an alternative political force, there would be much less chaos in the society since there is no power vacuum, a dangerous situation that leads to fantastic opportunities for political opportunists. The context of political forces in Vietnam today, where there is only one political party, the Communist Party, and opposition forces have several overseas organizations but have not yet built a base in Vietnam ( basically). When the regime’s collapse occurs, the Communist Party would be the culprit that brought the country to a dead-end leading to the destruction. Indeed, it would no longer have any role or voice (as a political force) in constructing the country’s new regime. Even if they move their entire apparatus from abroad to home, foreign parties cannot develop into a whole organization that can replace the role of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Most people in the country, except for a few people who participate in and are interested in the issue of democracy struggle, do not know the existence of such organizations and parties. That’s why it takes time to build political organizations inside the country. The consequence of not having an alternative political force is that the political forces and party organizations later established or brought back from abroad (for perfection) have the same role; no power or organization prevails. That requires a process of joint work, cooperation, and struggle, activities that are very foreign to most people in the country.
2/ Most people would be surprised when the regime collapses; the whole society is not prepared for regime change.
Not only ordinary people, even democracy fighters, but many people also do not think and do not believe that the Communist regime in Vietnam will collapse soon. That is a very normal thing, in addition to the fact that the collapse of a regime is too big and too complicated, the reason why most people would be surprised and do not think there is a change of regime in a shortcoming time is that:
– People come into contact with the regime’s public system every day and every hour, still finding it majestic and unchanged from before.
– People do not have access to actual news about economic, social, and political problems. In financial terms, the data is inaccurate and distorted, and the interpretation is vague, avoiding showing the deep and comprehensive crisis of the economy. Socially and politically, people do not know the process of stealing land by officials and the state, which has created millions of people who lost their houses and lands all over the country. The oppression and suppression of all religions make millions of followers angry. The authorities’ weakness in the face of China’s annexation and expansion in the East Sea and across the country makes many young people and intellectuals angry and resentful. All those things made Vietnamese people live in a harshly repressed society.
– Most notably, many people do not think and do not believe in regime change shortly because they do not see any force or organization challenging the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam. People always think that to change a regime; there must be a force to challenge and overthrow the Communist Party and the current system. People do not know, do not think, and do not believe that the communist regime in Vietnam can collapse only because they run out of money to feed and maintain the vast system that gives the Communist Party a monopoly on its leadership. People do not know that the depletion of the regime’s resources has come at the same time with a ruined economy, a complete breakdown of trust, and the extreme repression of many social classes. That’s why, despite living in difficulties and feeling frustrated, most people do not think the regime will collapse soon.
That is not a small challenge for the process of building democratic institutions. Because the people would be so surprised, the panic will occur very fiercely, causing a lot of difficulties for making democratic institutions in the future.
3/Most Vietnamese people do not have the skills to work voluntarily; organizations and political forces do not have experience in cooperation and dialogue for shared works.
As we know, Vietnamese people have many good and beautiful qualities but also have many limited and flawed personality traits. One of the significant limitations is the ability and skills to work together. Many call this shortcoming, to a small extent, teamwork. On a larger scale, it is called organizational culture. That is indeed a limitation and a significant defect in building democratic institutions in the future. We Vietnamese still work in many different organizations up to now. However, it is mandatory (joining unions) when working at an agency. But for building democratic institutions, where the voluntary nature is evident and dominant, we are weak and seriously lack skills and work experiences. On the other hand, because there are no political organizations and voluntary unions inside the country, we are limited in coordination, cooperation, and dialogue between organizations for shared work. Overseas, we also have many organizations and associations, but experience shows that coordination, joint service, and exchange effectiveness is minimal and modest.
Historically, we know that, in the past, our ancestors, even our present grandfather, were not without experience of working together. We had “village rules” in all rural areas, organized and run very well and efficiently. But in the Communist period, the authority destroyed those habits because they equated them with feudal culture. That is extremely unfortunate. After opening and integrating, cultural features and festivals are gradually being restored, and voluntary teamwork is rebuilt.
The above is an overview of specific difficulties and challenges in building a democratic institution in the future. There are many challenges specific to Vietnam, such as the strong herd mentality of Vietnamese people and the strict habit of pride, vanity, and appearance. Limited knowledge of societies, humanities, and social governance in the Vietnamese educational environment will also significantly affect the building of Democracy. However, with all the challenges specific to Vietnam, it only accounts for 30% of worries and concerns that Vietnam will not successfully build an influential democratic institution. The remaining percentage, 70%, is that we will fall into the “damaging path” of building democratic institutions in the world today. On the other hand, if we get out of the “bad track” of building Democracy, it will be easier for us to solve the unique challenges of Vietnam.
II/ The most significant challenge: defects, confusion, and omissions in the process of building a joint democratic institution in the world today.
1/ Brief survey of democracies, some theoretical issues
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the world has over 150 countries with democratic institutions, but only approximately 30 countries have liberal Democracy. The results are similar on the democracy index table, and nearly 30 countries with the democracy index are fully democratic. The problem is, all those 150 countries “basically” have democratic institutions, including democratic constitutions, separation of powers, natural and civic human rights…but why do only less than 30 countries have freedom for their people? It also means that most countries have democratic institutions, but the people only have electoral Democracy, not real liberal Democracy. Why and by what reason???
Going into deeper consideration, among the nearly 30 countries achieving liberal Democracy, or the index of Democracy reaching full Democracy, we find there are three schools to consider and study. The first is Japan and Germany, two countries that built a democratic system after the dictatorship completely collapsed but made excellent progress. Next are European countries, typically the North-Western European countries. The last one is the case of the United States.
In the case of Japan and Germany, we do not see any difference in terms of constitutions and democratic institutions compared to other countries. At the same time, we also do not hear anyone talking or praising the Democracy of these two countries. So why does the wonder come about? First of all, both countries had enjoyed democratic traditions before their dictatorships were established and wiped out. But more importantly, the Japanese and Germans both have the following valuable elements in their personality and national culture: very high self-esteem, discipline, and national pride. It means that, with the same democratic institutions (which is just a necessary condition), they also have cultural and national psychological factors that help the country and Democracy develop and achieve admirable outcomes. It is also impossible to ignore a small objective element, which is the unconditional support of the US after the Second World War for these two countries.
Western – Nordic countries have similar features, although the expression is different. We have only heard that the Nordic countries, with the high standard of living and welfare, but we have never heard of their Democracy having any institutional difference compared to other countries. However, Western – Northern Europe countries with a long democratic tradition are influenced by Christianity, Protestantism, religions with tolerance and acceptance of differences to a high degree. Therefore, the psychology and culture of the European countries are important factors in contributing to the building of their liberal democracies.
So, is there any country that people can have freedom solely based on their democratic institutions? The answer is: Yes! That is the United States. Why? Because the United States is a multi-ethnic, multi-state and multi-cultural country (United States of America). They did not have a homogeneous people before establishing a democratic institution. At the same time, building democratic institutions is also the process of tolerating different ethnicities and cultures. We cannot say that the United States is a nation whose psychology and culture are suitable for development. Still, we can only say that the production of Democracy and the economic development of the United States is due to its democratic institution. That is a significant and valuable conclusion, which means that countries can build democratic institutions that guarantee the freedom of the people and the ability to progress, regardless of the psychology and culture of the people. That is also what American Democracy is praised and imitated around the world.
An important next question is why the countries that have changed their institutions and social systems later have good constitutions, separation of powers, elections, many kinds of freedom. Still, they cannot develop like The United States?
Could it be that later democracies have not yet found the core principles and factors that determine the freedom of the people and the development of Democracy and freedom like the United States, to build a democratic institution that centers on and revolves around those principles and factors?
The answer is yes; all the theories and books on the issue of Democracy fail to point out the core principles, the core elements of American Democracy, and how to build, implement and enforce those principles and elements. When I researched and studied the theories and principles about freedom, Democracy, and building democratic institutions, I was amazed to discover that there is no standard definition of what Democracy means. Strange! The books and newspapers also show that, by the 1960s, there were over 500 definitions and concepts of Democracy!!! It means that we have not yet identified the core element of the idea of Democracy. Thus, the failure to find out the core elements, principles, and ways to build, implement and enforce those elements in later democratic institutions is the cause that leads to democracies only stopping at the level of electoral Democracy and not having the liberal Democracy that the people have wanted.
2/ Core elements of democratic institutions and challenges in building democratic institutions in the future.
a/ The core elements of a democratic institution
There are two most essential elements of the American democratic institution, which help it overcome all the hardships and challenges and bring the people and the country of the United States to the position it is today in the world. First, it is the equality of individuals and all citizens before the law. That is the premise of Democracy. Second, the sense of self-protection of human rights of each individual, when there are implementation mechanisms, will become the ability to self-protect human rights of each individual in society. For American culture, the initial equality of individuals participating in building a democratic institution is natural (the process of building a democratic institution in the United States is also the process of forming and building the nation). For all other countries later, it is the process of making the premise of Democracy: It is the acceptance and recognition of the differences of each human being, each group of people, collectives representing each ethnicity, religion, region, and locality.
The following factors ensure the people’s sense of self-protection of human rights: 1- people’s awareness of freedom and Democracy; 2- the direct participation of the people in the building of democratic institutions; 3- human rights protection mechanism so that people can protect their human rights.
b/ The biggest challenge in building a democratic institution in the future
Countries converting political institutions, from dictatorships to democratic ones, primarily take the following steps and activities:
Constitution building (especially hiring world-renowned constitutional experts)
Shaping political parties
Setting the election schedule, announcing and soliciting people’s opinions on the new constitution
It is noteworthy that these activities are conducted first and foremost at the national level. The actions to build regional and local democratic institutions are carried out after and are not the focus of democratic institutions of the countries. Contents of building democratic institutions of countries include:
To build a mechanism of separation of powers.
To build legal institutions that guarantee people’s freedoms, such as the right to life, the right to own property, the right to freedom of speech.
Building institutions and laws guarantees citizens’ rights (freedom of political and civil activities), for example, liberty to run for offices and vote in elections, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of the press.