Performance-based Legitimacy: The Case of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Doi Moi

[Contemporary Southeast Asia]  Abstract: This article examines the link between the legitimation process of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and its adoption of the Doi Moi (renovation) policy. It argues that socio-economic performance emerged as the single most important source of legitimacy for the CPV in the mid-1980s as its traditional sources of legitimacy were exhausted and alternative legitimation modes were largely irrelevant or ineffective. The CPV’s switch to performance-based legitimacy has had significant implications for Vietnam’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy and has served as an essential foundation for the Party’s continued rule. At the same time, however, it has also presented the CPV with serious challenges in maintaining uninterrupted socio-economic development in the context of the country’s growing integration with the global economic system which is experiencing instability. It is in this context that nationalism, couched in terms of Vietnam’s territorial and maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea, has been revived as an additional source of legitimacy in times of economic difficulties.

Key words: Vietnam, Communist Party of Vietnam, Doi Moi, legitimacy.


Since its adoption of the Doi Moi policy in the late 1980s, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has enjoyed an increasing level of domestic and international legitimacy. Despite sporadic social unrest and challenges by a small number of senior party officials, non-party intellectuals and pro-democracy dissidents,[i] the absolute domination of the CPV over Vietnam’s political system is likely to endure for the foreseeable future. Internationally, the image of Vietnam as an open economy and an active player in global affairs has earned the CPV wide international recognition.

One of the essential foundations of the CPV’s success was the implementation of the Doi Moi (renovation) policy which was officially adopted in December 1986 at the Party’s sixth national congress. The policy – which was primarily designed to turn Vietnam’s centrally-planned economy into a market-based one― has helped transform the country’s international image from Vietnam as a war to Vietnam as an economic success story. The economic reform under Doi Moi has indeed rejuvenated the “vitality” of the CPV which had experienced a sharp decline in its legitimacy mainly due to deteriorating socio-economic conditions.

Established in 1930, the legitimacy of the Party until 1975 was largely based on its leadership role in the country’s military struggle for national independence and unification, and, to a lesser extent, its promise to build a modern and equitable society through public and collective ownership, central planning and mass mobilization.[ii] After the reunification of the country in 1975, the CPV was faced with the challenge of meeting that promise by developing the national economy to achieve a “socialist revolution”. However, economic stagnation and flawed economic policies resulted in declining living standards nation-wide and plunged the country into a socio-economic crisis in the mid-1980s. Moreover, the image of Vietnam was tarnished by its military intervention and occupation of Cambodia from 1978 until 1989, which resulted in international economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation from countries outside the Warsaw Pact. The situation was further aggravated by the global retreat of communism, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. All these factors caused the legitimacy of the CPV to sink dramatically, threatening its grip on power.

Faced with such difficult circumstances, the CPV decided to adopt the Doi Moi policy in 1986, a policy which resulted in far reaching changes to the country and the Party. This article locates the CPV’s adoption of the Doi Moi policy as part of a wider process of the Party seeking political legitimacy. It argues that as the Party’s traditional sources of legitimacy had been exhausted by the late 1980s, and alternative legitimation modes were largely irrelevant or ineffective, socio-economic performance emerged as the single most important source of legitimacy for the CPV. The Party’s switch to performance-based legitimacy has had significant implications for Vietnam’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy, and has served as an essential foundation for its continued rule. At the same time, it has also presented the Party with serious challenges in maintaining uninterrupted socio-economic development in the context of the country’s growing integration with the global economic system which has been volatile since 2008. Against this backdrop, nationalism, especially regarding Vietnam’s territorial and maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea (Biển Đông, or East Sea in Vietnamese), has been revived as an additional source of legitimacy in times of economic difficulties.

This article is composed of five sections. The first discusses the theory of political legitimacy and legitimation. The second section examines the CPV’s legitimacy prior to the country’s unification in 1975. The third section looks into the Party’s legitimacy crisis in the 1980s, and the fourth examines the rationales behind the CPV’s switch to performance-based legitimation. In the final section, the article discusses the implications of the Party’s switch to performance-based legitimacy and the challenges therein, especially in the context of the economic difficulties Vietnam has recently been experiencing.

Political Legitimacy and Legitimation

Legitimacy is arguably one of the most important topics in the history of political philosophy.[iii] However, it is not easy to define or measure legitimacy, and political scientists have offered various definitions of the concept. A dominant thread in the literature on legitimacy is based on Weber’s formulation of legitimacy. According to Weber “the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige”.[iv] Weber contends that no authority will be accorded to the ruler unless the ruler “possesses an acknowledged right to command” and the ruled have “an acknowledged obligation to obey”.[v] In essence, Weber’s definition of legitimacy is pivoted on the notion of acknowledgement. In his view, the ruler’s legitimacy cannot be substantiated if the ruled do not acknowlege the ruler’s right to govern, thus refusing to submit to the ruler’s authority. Another important element in Weber’s formulation of  legitimacy is the idea of “belief”. The importance of “belief” has been criticized on a number of counts, including for equating legitimacy with emotion and popular opinion and making legitimacy a product of government manipulation.[vi] “Belief” remains, however, undeniably essential in bringing about the acknowledgement by the ruled of the ruler’s right to govern. Without successfully generating a belief among the ruled in its right to govern, rulership will have difficulties in winning acknowledgement from their people. Consequently, its legitimacy will be challenged sooner or later. Following Weber, other scholars have advanced their own definitions. For example, Friedrich defines legitimacy as “whether a given rulership is believed to be based on a good title by most of those subject to it”.[vii] Meanwhile, Lipset contends that “legitimacy involves the capacity of the system to maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society”.[viii]

Although legitimacy is originally a Political Science term, it has been increasingly integrated into the study of International Relations. A current thread in International Relations literature focuses on the legitimacy of states and international organizations in international society.[ix] For example, according to Donnelly, among the elements that constitute the structure of international society are “principles and practices of international legitimacy”, and “principles and practices of domestic legitimacy”.[x] The structure of international society therefore embodies “rules for identifying who gets to count as member” as well as rules about “what conduct is appropriate”.[xi] These rules, in other words, present two pillars of legitimacy: rightful membership and rightful conduct, respectively.[xii] However, the two dimensions of legitimacy are not independent of each other. Instead, they are inter-connected and supplementary to each other; as Ian Clark argues, “domestic” legitimacy has always contained an essentially international aspect, not least because it gives rise to collective acts of recognition. At the same time, it has frequently been the case that “international” legitimacy has done much to bolster the “domestic” legitimacy of individual regimes.[xiii]

It should, however, be stressed that a regime’s legitimacy needs to be first and foremost based on domestic sources and the consent of those it rules. In this regard, each regime acquires and maintains its legitimacy through various means and by a never-ending process of legitimation. At no point should the cultivation of legitimacy be seen as adequate, as “legitimacy is multifaceted, highly contingent, and a dynamic feature of government”.[xiv] A legitimate government today could be rendered illegitimate tomorrow. Similarly, a type of regime may enjoy a high level of popular support in a given country, but in another, it could be seen as illegitimate. As Muthiah Alagappa contends, legitimacy is a social practice based on the interaction between the ruler and the ruled; hence it must be framed in the sociopolitical and economic context of a specific society at a specified time.[xv] The legitimacy of different types of governments in different countries, therefore, should be examined through a customized lens rather than through a fixed and standardized one.

According to Alagappa, there are four major elements on which rulers can base their legitimacy, namely (1) shared norms and values; (2) the acquisition of power by the government in accordance with established rules; (3) whether power is exercised within set limits for the promotion of the people’s collective interests; and, (4) if the governed consent to the rule of the incumbent.[xvi]

The first element, namely norms and values, involves the belief systems or ideologies that help configure the political system and hence the structure of domination. As a result, the more the ruled accepts the ideology promoted by the ruler, the firmer the government’s legitimacy will be. Therefore, every government needs to promote a certain ideology to buttress their hold on power, and more importantly, to forge a consensus in the whole society. However, to be successful, such an attempt should take into account the country’s history and culture, and the material bases on which norms and values are shaped. In other words, those norms and values should be localized and contextualized to be compatible with the cultural and historical background of the local society.

The creation of shared norms and values also leads to the establishment of certain rules regarding the acquisition of political power. A government that acquires power through these commonly accepted and well observed rules will be viewed as legitimate. This element contributes greatly to the legitimacy of governments in well-established democracies, where rules regarding elections are normally well-established and fully observed. However, according to Alagappa, there are two cases where a government may enjoy initial legitimacy despite the absence of a well-established regime. The first is when a government assumes power following a politically defining moment, such as a revolution. The second situation relates to the charisma of an individual leader. The charismatic authority will be even stronger when it is deployed in conjunction with other bases of authority, especially a politically defining moment.[xvii]

The third element, whether power is exercised within set limits for the promotion of the people’s collective interests, signifies the ruler’s proper use of power. The proper use of power is not only restricted to the observance with the law or other accepted rules and procedures, but also related to the effective performance of the government, in which the promotion of collective interests of the community is essential. The issue of performance is more important for authoritarian and communist regimes than democratic ones, as the former normally do not come to power through established rules of power acquisition.[xviii] Therefore, failure to maintain an effective performance, especially regarding economic development, will lead to a decline in the government’s moral authority,[xix] which further compounds its lack of legal authority. This causality creates the foundation for the performance-based legitimation mode employed by many authoritarian and communist regimes.[xx]

The last element in the structure of political legitimacy is the consent of the governed. This element is also crucial, as it reflects the acknowledgement, or recognition, by the governed of the ruler’s right to issue commands. As discussed earlier, without public acknowledgement, there would be no authority. The public consent to the government may be expressed in different forms and at various levels, ranging from a lack of mass and organized opposition, and the compliance with the policies set by the government; to the obedience to commands issued by the ruler, as well as the public contribution to the achievement of common goals set by the rulers.

The significance of the above-mentioned bases of legitimacy for each regime may vary according to the regime’s nature. In other words, the specific legitimation modes employed by each regime are subject to its perception of what is more relevant and favourable to its legitimation project. Building on works by Weber, Rigby and others, Leslie Holmes suggests that rulers can seek legitimacy via at least ten legitimation modes. He divides them into two categories, internal and external modes. Internal modes include: old traditional (e.g. divine right of monarch); charismatic (leaders emerging from a revolutionary change); goal-rational (leaders claiming the right to rule by knowing the most efficient and fastest way to reach the end-goal); nationalism (patriotism, defense of national sovereignty); new traditional (e.g. leaders revert to an earlier, typically charismatic, leader’s approach to legitimize their own rule and policies); performance-driven, and; legal-rational (rule of law). External or international legitimacy can similarly be achieved in different ways: formal recognition (by other states or international organization); informal support (other countries showing support for the approach of a leadership), and; external role-model (leaders following the approach of another country or set of countries that constitute a role-model).[xxi]

These legitimation modes are normally employed flexibly by regimes and governments across the world. First, rarely does a government employ only one legitimation mode. Instead, they might employ a core legitimation mode, supplemented by a combination of others. Second, when a regime or government is facing a decline in its legitimacy, it can shift its principal legitimation mode to boost its legitimacy. A legitimacy crisis will therefore occur if a regime or government cannot successfully move to an alternative core legitimation mode.

Unlike democratic regimes, communist regimes generally have a more complicated legitimation process.[xxii] While most democratic regimes base their legitimacy on the legal-rational mode, communist regimes normally derive their legitimacy from a combination of sources, such as Marxist ideology, socialist goals, popular revolution, charismatic leaders, official nationalism and socio-economic performance.[xxiii] However, many scholars suggest that among these sources, socio-economic perfomance, which primarily involves the role of the government in providing social and economic benefits for its citizens, could be regarded as the single most important source from which communist regimes derive their legitimacy.[xxiv] This suggestion is upheld by the observation that there is an economic-political tradeoff upon which communist regimes’ socio-economic development is based. This tradeoff is described as a “social contract”, “social compact”, or “social compromise”.[xxv] Accordingly, under communist regimes, certain civil liberties, such as free speech, an independent press, the rule of law and genuine elections will be constrained. In exchange, communist regimes promise to provide for its citizens a high level of social welfare, including a comprehensive and essentially free education and healthcare system, security of employment and stable prices, higher living standards and upward career mobility.[xxvi]These promises, while helping to justisfy the citizen’s abandonment of certain civil liberties, requires communist regimes to generate a large pool of resources to maintain its social welfare system. Such a goal will be unattainable without high and steady rates of economic growth. Therefore, maintaining a sound economic performance is essential for communist governments to honour their “social contract”, and thereby securing their political legitimacy.

The CPV’s Legitimacy Prior to 1975

The “Lost Decade” and the CPV’s Legitimacy Crisis

Doi Moi and the CPV’s Switch to Performance-based Legitimacy

Implications of the CPV’s Switch to Performace-based Legitimacy



Source: Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 34, No. 2 (2012), pp. 145–72. Full text of the article is available for download (subscription required) at:

[i] A state’s political legitimacy is perceived differently by different groups. Within a country, there may be groups of individuals that contest the political legitimacy of the state. However, what matters is the perception of the state’s legitimacy by the majority of the people. See Carlyle A. Thayer, “Political Legitimacy of Vietnam’s One Party-State: Challenges and Responses”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 28, No. 4 (2009): p 48. For more information on recent challenges to the CPV’s legitimacy, see Carlyle A. Thayer, “Political Legitimacy in Vietnam: Challenge and Response”, Politics & Policy 38, No.3 (2010): 423-44.

[ii] Borje Ljunggren, “Vietnam’s Second Decade under Doi Moi: Emerging Contradictions in the Reform Process?”, in Bjorn Beckman et al, Vietnam: Reform and Transformation, (Stockholm: Akademitryck AB, 1997), p. 11

[iii] Lynn White, Legitimacy: Ambiguities of Political Success or Failure in East and Southeast Asia, (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2005), p.1.

[iv]Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization edited by Talcott Parsons, (New York: Free Press, 1964), p. 382.

[v] Dennis Wrong, Power: Its Form, Bases and Uses, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 49.

[vi] Muthiah Alagappa, “The Anatomy of Legitimacy” in Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia: The Quest for Moral Authority edited by Muthiah Alagappa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 12.

[vii] Carl J. Friedrich, Man and His Government: An Empirical Theory of Politics, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), p. 246.

[viii] Seymour M. Lipset, Political Man, (New York: Doubleday, 1960), p. 77.

[ix] See, for example, Ian Clark, Legitimacy in International Society, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Christian Reus-Smit,The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999); Ian Hurd, After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power in the United Nations Security Council, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[x] Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory & Practice, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 15.

[xi] Tim Dunne, cited in Ian Clark, Legitimacy in International Society, op. cit., pp. 4-5.

[xii] Ibid.p. 5.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Alagappa, “The Anatomy of Legitimacy”, op. cit., p. 11.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 15.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 21.

[xviii] Stephen White, “Economic Performance and Communist Legitimacy”, World Politics 38 (April 1986): 463.

[xix] David Beetham, Legitimation of Power (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1991), pp. 136-42.

[xx] White, “Economic Performance”, op. cit., pp. 462-82

[xxi] Leslie Holmes, “Vietnam in a Comparative Communist and Postcommunist Perspective” in Vietnam’s New Order: International Perspectives on the State and Reform in Vietnam edited by Stephanie Balme and Mark Sidel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 18-19.

[xxii] Yang Zhong, “Legitimacy crisis and legitimation in China”, Journal of Contemporary China 26, No.2, (1996): 201-220.

[xxiii] Holmes, The End of Communist Power, op. cit., pp. 17-18.

[xxiv] White, “Economic Performance”, op. cit., p. 463

[xxv] See, respectively, Vladimir Kusin, From Dubcek to Charter 77, (Edinburgh: Qpress, 1978), p. 179; Alex Pravda in Opposition in Eastern Europe edited by Rudolf L. Tokés, (London: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 226-27; and Ferenc Feher, Agness Heller, and Gyorgy Markus, Dictatorship over Needs, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 104.

[xxvi] White, “Economic Performance”, op. cit., p. 463.

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