Can Vietnam break the authoritarian glass ceiling?

26 November 2019

Author: Paul Schuler, University of Arizona

No woman has led a non-democratic regime that was not a monarchy. Vietnam will make history in 2021 if it selects current National Assembly Chair, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) General Secretary at the next Party Congress.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) meets Vietnam's National Assembly's Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan in Hanoi, Vietnam, 8 December 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

Precedent for her selection certainly exists given that the previous two general secretaries were both also National Assembly chairs prior to their promotion. Some analysts see Ngan as a natural contender.

With this potentially historic possibility in mind, it’s worth asking whether such a notable ‘first’ should be celebrated by women’s rights advocates. What would her promotion mean for women’s rights in Vietnam? More broadly, should we advocate for greater gender equality in leadership positions in non-democratic regimes?

The promotion of a woman to such a high-profile leadership position in Vietnam would certainly represent a victory for many foreign donors. International organisations like the World Bank and the UNDP have long advocated for increased female representation throughout the VCP. In 2014, the World Bank’s former country director in Vietnam lamented the fact that women only comprised 30 per cent of the Communist Party. The UNDP has also fought to increase the number of women in the National Assembly.

These organisations support increased female representation because it is perceived as a normative good in its own right and because it may improve policy. For example, research finds women in leadership positions less likely to engage in corruption than men.

Perhaps more important from the perspective of women’s rights advocacy is the possibility that more women in leadership positions could generate more equitable policies. One Vietnamese policy which has drawn the ire of gender equality advocates is the unequal retirement ages of men and women. Others have criticised party-backed propaganda campaigns promoting the role of women in the home.

How would Ngan’s selection impact those policies? When she was selected as Chair, some expressed hope that she would be progressive on social issues such as LGBTQ rights. But given the opaque and collective nature of decision making in Vietnam, it is difficult to discern Ngan’s policy preferences even after several years. Much like other officials, she espouses the party line and does not deviate from the party’s public transcript. It is not clear that her selection will meaningfully impact policy in a way that aligns with the goals of greater female representation.

While we may not be able to predict her impact on policy, Ngan’s selection may still have an important and long-lasting effect. In particular, she might be able to narrow the participation and knowledge gap between men and women in Vietnam. Surveys find that in Vietnam, like much of the rest of the democratic and non-democratic world, women are less likely to participate in politics and express knowledge about public affairs. For instance, women are far less likely to be able to name one of the country’s top-four leaders or attend village meetings where important decisions about public goods provision are made.

This gap is important. Although it is true that many participatory institutions in Vietnam are highly formalistic, research shows that local leaders are susceptible to pressure from participants in local meetings. Additionally, those with political knowledge are more likely to use other informal means to pressure local officials on policy. Given the political knowledge gap, men are more likely to avail themselves of these opportunities than women. This can have an impact on the types of local infrastructure projects which are constructed and public services provided.

This is where Ngan’s selection could have a profound effect. In developing and developed democracies, the nomination and selection of female leaders increases female political participation and awareness in large part through the role model effect. The role model effect posits that women are more likely to express interest and engage in politics when they see other women in positions of power.

When Ngan was selected as National Assembly Chair in 2016, the ability of women to name the Chair increased by a greater degree than men. While the effect was modest, one might expect that the effect would be even greater if she was elevated to the higher profile general secretary position. Her promotion would then provide at least one benefit in fostering greater political knowledge and participation among women, as political knowledge is a valuable commodity no matter what type of political system one lives in.

We should not overstate the importance of Ngan’s potential promotion. The Central Committee and Politburo are still overwhelmingly represented by men, a fact that has not changed even as Ngan has risen to her position of prominence. But role models do matter. If her selection induces women to become more interested in politics, that effect could trickle down to the local level where accountability and political knowledge go hand-in-hand.

Paul Schuler is Assistant Professor of political science at the School of Government and Public Policy, the University of Arizona.


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