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Together with increasing gender awareness and women empowerment, women participation in politics has been on the rise for the last decades. This trend is significantly present in the number of women in parliaments throughout the world. This paper aims to present and explain the current situation of women in Vietnam’s parliament—the National Assembly. In the first section, the paper provides a brief overview of the number of women in the National Assembly since 1976. The second section seeks to explain the situation by analyzing institutional and socioeconomic factors. In the third section, the paper indicates existing efforts to promote women’s participation. Finally, the effects of women in parliament are discussed in the fourth section.
Situation of Women in the National Assembly
Vietnam is a one-party state with the Communist Party of Vietnam as the sole party in power. The National Assembly, a 493-member unicameral body elected to a five-year term, is the legislative arm of Vietnam’s governmental machinery (CIA 2010). It is recognized as “the highest representative body of the people, the highest State authority in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” (Vietnam Laws 2010).
In Vietnam, men and women enjoy equal rights to vote and stand for elections. This was documented in the country’s first constitution in 1946. In 1976, the first female candidate was nominated and elected to the National Assembly (UNESCAP 2010). In the same year, female candidates won in total 132 seats (26.3%). Since then, women have made up a substantial proportion (roughly a quarter) of the National Assembly. In two terms 1987-1992 and 1992-1997, the number fell to 17.7% and 18.5%, respectively. However, since 1997, the number of women elected has rise to 26.0% (1997-2002), 27.3% (2002-2007) and 25.8% (2007 to present) (IPU 2010a). Currently, Vietnam ranks 2nd in Asia and 35th among 187 countries listed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in terms of the percentage of women in parliament (lower or single house) (IPU 2010b).
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Figure 1: % Women elected in the National Assembly, 1976 to present (IPU 2010a)
Explaining the Number of Women in the National Assembly
To explain the high number of women in the National Assembly in Vietnam, the paper adopts the explanatory frameworks introduced by Wängerud (2009). Instead of dividing explanatory factors according to macro-, meso- and micro-level variables, the paper groups variables into institutional and socioeconomic factors. Institutional factors (such as electoral system, party ideology…) are variables that directly affect the outcomes of female candidates’ participation in elections, while socioeconomic factors (religion, gender-equality culture…) are variables that indirectly facilitate or hinder women’s presence in parliament, and more broadly, in politics.
One of the most direct factors that significantly manipulates the number of women in parliament is the electoral system. According to Wängerud, the most favorable election systems for female candidates are those with party lists, proportional representation (PR) and large district magnitudes. In these systems, the competitions are generally perceived as less competitive. Women have more chance to win seats as long as they manage to get on the party lists. On the contrary, majority systems based on single-member districts are the less favorable due to their vigorous competitions. A female candidate has to be the number-one choice in her party to be able to take part in the race (Wängerud 2009). The situation in Vietnam does not particularly fall into either category, but in general, is in favor of women. In Vietnam, the voting system is absolute majority. The country is divided into 158 multi-member constituencies with no more than three candidates elected in each unit. To secure a seat in the National Assembly, a candidate has to win at least 50% of votes in the unit. In case of an unfilled seat or no candidates with more than 50%, a majority second round (50% threshold) will be held among the original candidates (APPS 2010). Although the competition is very high in this system (due to majority voting), the fact that candidate lists are employed and up to three can be elected give more chance to a female candidate. Her chance is also increased thanks to the absence of party competition (there is only one legal party, the Communist Party of Vietnam).
Another important factor is the nature of political parties. Political parties that promote gender equality, follow leftist ideology, have centralized organization and create connections with organizations outside the parties tend to have more women in parliament (Wängerud 2009). In this aspect, Vietnam provides a good example. In Vietnam, there is only one political party—the Communist Party. The party is built up based on socialist nature which puts strong emphasis on human equality, including gender equality. Therefore, women’s participation in politics has been one of the party’s top concerns. At the same time, the Communist Party has worked closely with Vietnam’s Women Union, the largest women organization in the country, to promote women’s rights and to provide training for women in all fields, including politics and leadership (UNESCAP 1997). However, the fact that there is no variation in political parties brings along negative effects as women with different or even opposing ideologies do not have the opportunities to run for parliament.
In Vietnam, despite the high number of women in the National Assembly, there is no gender quota or compulsory measures to increase women’s presence. However, the state has always aimed at a voluntary target of 30% women in the National Assembly. The target is documented in a number of national strategies for the advancement of women (more details to be followed in later part “Effort to Increase Women’s participation) (UNESCAP 2010).