6. Local Politics and Democracy in a Muong Ethnic Community

From: Beyond Hanoi

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Local Politics and Democracy in a Muong Ethnic Community 137© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore 6 Local Politics and Democracy in a Muong Ethnic Community Tran Thi Thu Trang From the 1990s and into the new millennium, the issue of governance has gained substantial attention from research institutions and development agencies. Democratic governance is one of the main components of assistance programmes of multilateral and bilateral donors to developing countries. The United Nations Development Program’s 2002 Human Development Report considered democratic governance a basic condition for human development. In the Vietnamese context, development agencies consider democratic governance crucial for sustaining the economic performance achieved since the 1986 economic reform, and to ensure the development of human well-being.1 Resources allocated to this sector reflect multilateral agencies’ promotion of political reforms, in particular, democratization and decentralization. “As at mid-August 1999, the total approved budgets for Governance projects [in Viet Nam] stood at US$30.54 million, or about 37% of UNDP’s approved programme resources”.2 Reproduced from Beyond Hanoi: Local Government in Vietnam, edited by Benedict J Tria Kerkvliet and David G Marr (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2004). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at 138 Tran Thi Thu Trang© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore In this broad context of the prominence of governance and, at the grassroots, rural protest against local authorities’ abuse of power in Vietnam, as in Thai Binh province in 1997, the government launched Decree 29 on local democracy. The decree promotes citizens’ rights to be informed and to participate in local decision-making.3 Also the government made efforts to decentralize its political structure, granting local authorities more decision-making power. This chapter assesses whether these government initiatives have succeeded in enhancing local democracy. It does not examine the motivations for such reforms but studies the relationships between central and local politics that have influenced attempts at democratization. The study examines how local cadres obtain political positions, how they wield and maintain power, and how the local population perceives them. Based on the available literature and extensive fieldwork conducted in 2001 in a Muong ethnic village, given the pseudonym “Chieng Hoa”, this chapter assesses three political institutions: village elections, meetings, and grievance procedures.4 These three are referred to as representation, participation, and accountability of democratization.5 The chapter then argues that, despite their formal existence, these elements contribute little to local democracy because they are trapped in unequal power structures. The analysis demonstrates that such structures are the outcome of: a) the concentration of power in commune executives; and b) the local population’s differential access to information. Approaches to Democratic Governance Some donors define governance as “the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels”.6 Democratic governance implies the transparency and accountability of such process. There are two main views on how to achieve democratic governance at the local level. One uses technical assistance to improve the management skills and working conditions of cadres, and assumes that the lack of both training and incentives are reasons for ineffective and opaque governance. This approach avoids addressing power relations within the governing system, for they are considered politically sensitive.7 The other approach views governance as “complex mechanisms, processes, relationships and institutions through which citizens and Local Politics and Democracy in a Muong Ethnic Community 139© 2004 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore groups articulate their interests, exercise their rights and obligations and mediate their differences”.8 It is therefore not sufficient to improve only the management capacity of cadres. The state needs to establish mechanisms for decision-making and accountability at the local level.9 Moreover, as the central government often fails to provide adequate services to rural areas, governance means increased autonomy for local authorities. This approach therefore promotes the establishment of democratic institutions, and the decentralization of power and responsibility to local cadres. UNDP defines democratic institutions as: • A system of representation, with well-functioning political parties and interest associations; • An electoral system that guarantees free and fair elections as well as universal suffrage; • A system of checks and balances based on separation of powers, with independent judicial and legislative branches; • A vibrant civil society, able to monitor government and private...


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Subject Headings

  • Local government -- Vietnam.
  • Vietnam -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Decentralization in government -- Vietnam.
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