North Vietnamese leaders worried not only about the diminishing importance of their struggle in the context of world politics but also about the success of the Second Republic in stabilizing South Vietnam. Nguyen Van Thieu was not a very inspiring leader, but neither was he known for either excessive corruption or egregious abuse of power. He was a relatively competent administrator, and he was inclined to avoid violating constitutional formalities. He countenanced opposition in the legislature, a judiciary to some extent beyond his control, and relative freedom of the press without prior censorship. To an extent, his behavior was influenced by American expectations as Ambassador Bunker endeavored to gently coach him about American norms of constitutional practice.
Elections for the National Assembly under the Second Republic elicited par- ticipation by a wide range of groups. The first Senate election was held at the same time as the presidential election in early September 1967. The sixty-member Senate was elected with a system of ten-member slates; the six slates that received the most votes were elected. Of sixty-four aspiring slates, forty-eight were approved to stand for election. Two slates associated with Thich Tri Quang’s militant Buddhists were among those not approved. A moderate Buddhist slate was approved, but did not win election. Slates associated with the Hoa Hao, with Nguyen Cao Ky, and with Truong Dinh Dzu were approved but were also unsuccessful in the election. The successful slates included people who had both supported and opposed Ngo Dinh Diem but they were generally favorable toward Nguyen Van Thieu. Around 40 percent of those elected were Catholics. Although Catholics amounted to not much more than 10 percent of the popula- tion, they were more organized than others, and they strongly supported the Second Republic.
Three years later, half of the senators, who had drawn three-year terms, as opposed to the regular six-year senatorial term, either stood for re-election or stood down from the Senate. In the 1970 senatorial election, sixteen of eighteen aspiring ten-member slates were approved, and a slate supported by the militant Buddhists led by Thich Tri Quang was one of the three slates elected. Among the new senators seated in this election were members of the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai, a Khmer Theravada Buddhist, and a Cham Muslim. The results of this election significantly increased the number of senators who opposed or were critical of the government.
The last senatorial election was held in August 1973, when the Second Repub- lic was in the early stage of abandonment by the US and beginning to suffer economic problems. Election rules were changed to make it more difficult for oppositional politicians to be elected. Four fifteen-member slates were allowed to campaign and two were elected. During the Second Republic, the Senate was under strong presidential influence but not control; many senators were critical of the government and forced it to publicly defend its policies. Even more lively debate and opposition to the government was characteristic of the House of Representatives.
In the first House election, held in October 1967, more than 1,150 candidates competed for fewer than 150 seats. About one-third of those elected were Buddhists, including several militant followers of Thich Tri Quang. Other major religious groups represented were Catholics, who made up 25 percent, and Hoa Hao, 10 percent. Among those elected was Ho Huu Tuong, the Trotskyist activist in the 1930s who spent several years in French prisons. In the late 1940s he turned away from communism and worked as a journalist in Saigon. In 1955, he was imprisoned when he supported the sects against Ngo Dinh Diem. After his release from prison in 1964, he returned to journalism. When his slate for the Senate election was disallowed, he ran for the House instead and served there to the end of the Second Republic as a respected critic of the government.
The second and last election for the House, in which members held four-year terms, was in August 1971. Of members seeking re-election, only 40 of 119 were successful; of these 40 about half supported the government and about half were oppositional. The largest single bloc of winners were supporters of Thich Tri Quang’s militant Buddhists, constituting 15 percent of the House, of whom over half were under the age of 40. The new House in comparison with the outgoing House was better educated, less corrupt, and included more independent and oppositional members.
In these elections, voter turnout varied from around 65 percent to 85 percent of registered voters. The relatively high percentage of voters may to some extent be attributed to the importance of demonstrating one’s loyalty to the government in wartime by being able to produce a voter card proving that one had voted. But beyond this, considering the press coverage of the elections and the eagerness of people to run for office, the Second Republic demonstrated a certain plausible success as a government based on relatively free elections. There were many charges of fraud in these elections, but there were procedures for investigating them that came to depend upon an increasingly independent judiciary. Many fraud charges were simply part of the political process as it was understood and practiced at that time; losers charged fraud because they had asserted before the election that they could lose only if there was fraud. The Supreme Court was established in 1968 with justices chosen by the National Assembly. It was generally comprised of highly qualified people and included some who were openly critical of Nguyen Van Thieu’s administration. In dealing with electoral fraud charges, it demonstrated that it had achieved credibility as a relatively neutral interpreter of the law. During the course of its existence, it established the procedure of judicial review and was not shy about declaring legislation and administrative acts to be unconstitutional.
The most controversial election in the history of the Second Republic was the October 1971 presidential election. During the preceding summer, Duong Van Minh, who was living in retirement, and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky were poised to run against the incumbent. As a man out of power, Duong Van Minh was perceived as an opposition candidate. He believed that he had a chance of winning if Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu split the pro-government vote. Conversely, Nguyen Van Thieu believed he could defeat Duong Van Minh if Nguyen Cao Ky was out of the race. In June 1971, after rancorous debate, the National Assembly passed a new law requiring candidates to obtain a certain number of endorsements from elected officials. Nguyen Van Thieu proceeded to gather all available pro-government endorsements, shutting out Nguyen Cao Ky. Duong Van Minh received the necessary endorsements, but when he saw that Nguyen Cao Ky was disqualified he dropped out of the race. Shortly after this, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for Nguyen Van Thieu to accumulate excessive endorsements. Although Nguyen Cao Ky was then approved to run, he nevertheless quit the race, the result being that Nguyen Van Thieu ran for re-election unopposed with Tran Van Huong as his vice presidential candidate. The election further marginalized Nguyen Cao Ky and his followers while consolidating Nguyen Van Thieu’s position, but the election also demonstrated that legislative and judicial acts were accepted as matters of law and were not under executive control. While constitutional development enabled participation in national politics by a relatively diverse range of constituencies, dramatic developments in rural areas were at least as important to the stability of the Second Republic. Southern communists suffered a sharp decline in numbers and influence after the 1968 fighting. Defections to the Second Republic reached an all-time high in 1969. Local government in rural areas experienced a minor revolution with elections for village and hamlet officials. Furthermore, in a move resisted by the army but popular among rural people and strongly pushed by Nguyen Van Thieu, weapons were provided to local self-defense units that were under the control of village officials. The Ngo Dinh dream of strategic hamlets was to some extent realized under the Second Republic.
The most important aspect of rural policy was land reform legislation, which built on prior redistribution laws that had never been fully implemented due to wartime conditions and government weakness. In 1969 and 1970, rural areas became more secure and the legal structure of the Second Republic was able to effectively address agrarian issues. Within three years, redistributed land amounted to two and a half times what had been transferred during the previous decade and a half. The maximum amount of land anyone could own was reduced by 85 percent. While owners were compensated, tenants received land free of charge, as did landless farmers, war veterans, families of war dead, and others. Farmers were allowed to keep land that had been redistributed by communist authorities, and all new owners received permanent deeds, which they were forbidden to sell during fifteen years. In some areas that had been controlled by communists, by 1968 the taxes collected by communist authorities from those to whom they had given land exceeded the rent of tenants in adjacent government-controlled areas. Rural taxation under the Second Republic was comparatively light.
Cultural and intellectual life under the Second Republic was to some extent an echo of the lively debates and diversity of views that had characterized Saigon in the 1920s and 1930s. The experience of the heavy American military presence during the late 1960s stimulated extensive discussion about negative American influences and the importance of a Vietnamese cultural identity. As the American presence rapidly declined in the early 1970s, a southern Vietnamese perspective on national culture focused on issues larger than the war. This was different from North Vietnam, where thought and culture were entirely subordinated to the war and to politics. Southerners enjoyed the freedom to speak and to write about matters not directly related to the war or to politics. Journalism, literary works, magazines, and academic journals reflected a wide range of interests, ideologies, and opinions about culture, politics, religion, science, youth, gender, family relations, international trends, and personal life. Compared with cultural life in North Vietnam, this sometimes appeared chaotic and disconnected from the wartime situation, but it was a typical expression of southern openness to new ideas and to the outside world. Furthermore, it demonstrated why the war was being fought.