Preliminary Report on the 1967 Elections

By David Wurfel. Preliminary Report of Vietnam Election Observer for Methodist Peace Division, SANE, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Unitarian Universalist Association Washington, D.C. 21 September, 1967

Why do many South Vietnam intellectual leaders regard the September 3 election as the loss of the last hope for developing a strong political counterforce to the Communist-led National Liberation Force? Will present U.S. political policy in South Vietnam result in a Communist government in that country? Profoundly disturbing information on these issues is presented in this report by Dr. David Wurfel, who recently returned from South Vietnam.

Seven years in Asia, five earlier trips to South Vietnam, and years of full time specialization in South East Asian studies give Dr. Wurfel a sound perspective from which to understand and to interpret the events and trends in the South Vietnam political scene. Dr. Wurfel’s first hand depth study of four Philippine elections provide him the skills necessary for evaluating the nature and extent of fraud in the South Vietnam election. His wide range of friendships in South Vietnam, both in and outside the government of that country, opened many doors for frank conversations with a wide variety of Vietnamese leaders on the nature and meaning of the September 3 elections. We believe his report merits close attention for all who are concerned about the crisis in Vietnam.


I went to Viet Nam with the hope that the elections I was to observe would be free and fair because I recognized that only under such conditions would the Saigon government be in a strong position to negotiate with the Communists. I went also with some skepticism as to whether they would, in fact, be free and fair, in view of the elimination of two major presidential candidates and the inauspicious beginning of the campaign, shortly before I left the United States. Finally, I went to Viet Nam with a realistic standard of judgment, not that of Bever1y Hills or of Ann Arbor, but most specifically that of the Philippines.

I had observed four elections in the Philippines over a 17-year period and had learned something about fraud; I had learned also that, given freedom, an Asian people could correct their own electoral system so that today, though certainly not perfect, Philippine elections are part of an essentially democratic political process. With this hope, this skepticism, and this standard of judgment I went to Viet Nam.

My method of investigation was first to gather and study all relevant documents, e.g. election laws, results of last year’s elections, and the proceedings by which candidates were excluded. Then I contacted old friends, persons who could speak to me in confidence and with whose attitudes in previous years I was already acquainted. These included a past Minister of Foreign Affairs, a former deputy prime minister, a former confidant of Pres. Diem, a leading Buddhist priest, a past president of the Girl Guides, a Vietnamese businessman with an American firm, a Buddhist nun, head of Tan Dai Viet senate ticket, a German professor long resident in Viet Nam, an American who for nine years had been participating in and supervising Vietnamese rural development programs, among others. By these friends I was introduced to close friends of theirs who would speak frankly to me. A University professor in Can Tho, a high school teacher and active Buddhist layman in Hue, a non-official American resident in Danang, a judicial official in My Tho, and in Saigon a former member of Ky’s cabinet, several student leaders (Catholic, Buddhist and secular), a leading Catholic intellectual, a former acting prime minister, a Colonel prominent in the 1963 coup, a former head of the newspaper publisher’s association, a leading Buddhist social worker, a Catholic senatorial candidate and many others. I visited the Vietnamese government agencies supervising the election and received a briefing at the US Embassy. I also interviewed a number of presidential, vice-presidential and senatorial candidates, collecting copies of all their statements. When not conversing with Vietnamese fluent in Eng11sh—and their number has increased rapidly in the last two years—I had an experienced interpreter, a Catholic girl educated in the U.S.

I attended six of the joint meetings of presidential candidates, one of which was in Saigon. In the process I met many newspapermen, American and foreign, and had the opportunity to exchange information and views with them. While impressed with the amount of information the better journalists possess, I was often disappointed by the insensitivity of many of them to Vietnamese feelings. I became convinced that the Vietnamese problem could be understood only in terms of the configuration of Vietnamese attitudes toward it.

With these contacts and these experiences, after four weeks in Viet Nam—still a very inadequate period for understanding—I came to the following conclusions:

The Election

1. The exclusion of the candidacies of General Duon van Minh and Dr. Au truon Thanh denied the people of South Viet Nam true freedom of choice and was achieved largely by illegal means; both men were more popular than any of the candidates who did run.

Gen. Minh’s candidacy was effectively thwarted by refusing him permission to return to Viet Nam, though there is no provision in the constitution for exile.

All Vietnamese I talked to agreed that he would have won an overwhelming victory in a free election; he was a southerner and a Buddhist, and would have received Buddhist backing. He would also have become a rallying point for southerners within the armed forces. These were his sins.

Dr. Thanh, though not nearly so well known as “Big Minh” was the only candidate who stirred enthusiasm and commitment among the educated classes. Thanh was the only candidate who clearly articulated the desire for peace before the campaign began; he was brilliant, forceful, experienced and honest. At 42 he was the only civilian candidate below 50. The charges of Communist connections brought against him were not new, but had all been available to the police when Thanh was in the Ky cabinet. These charges, though pushed by the government, were sustained in the Constituent Assembly partly by supporters of Tran van Huong who had expected Thanh to support Huong and were dismayed at his last minute candidacy. Nevertheless, it was government pressure that rounded up the necessary majority for his disqualification.

One important incident not heretofore publicized was the assassination of the private secretary of the president of the Bar Association. The Bar’s president was a member of the Central Election Council established by the Election Law to evaluate candidates’ qualifications and to report their findings to the Constituent Assembly. He was reputed to be the only independent mind in that official-dominated body. His secretary was murdered the night before the Council recommended Dr. Thanh’s disqualification. In this context, implied threats were sufficiently effective against Constituent Assembly members.

After the exclusion of Minh and Thanh, and senate tickets allied with the militant Buddhists as well, most students, Buddhist leaders, and many intellectuals became entirely disillusioned with the electoral process. The last minute alliance between Thieu and Ky, with American blessing, confirmed their suspicion that victory for the military ticket had been predetermined. The major civilian candidates remaining did not excite them: Mr. Huong was honest, but aging and politically ineffective. (One of Mr. Huong’s close friends reported that Mr. Huong himself admitted that he never read the newspapers!) Mr. Suu had more political experience, but was not thought quite so honest, and was even more feeble. Mr. Dzu, not considered a “major candidate” until after the campaign began, espoused the right cause, peace, but emerged from such a shady past as to make everything he said suspect.

2. The relative freedom of the campaign was badly marred by the closing of three newspapers and the continuation of censorship, as well as by threats against some campaign workers given credibility by instances of government terrorism in the recent past.

Throughout the campaign “freedom of the press”, though greater than before, continued to be compromised by closure, censorship and differential subsidy. Government control of the allocation of subsidized newsprint amounted to covert grants of as much as $2,000 dollars per month to newspapers which received more newsprint than their own circulation required and could thus resell. The tell-tale mark of the censor, blank columns, appeared from time to time in Vietnamese dailies, for instance in Song on August 23rd, even though the Saigon government had announced that this practice would stop when the campaign officially opened on August 3rd. Shortly after the campaign began, one of the leading political dailies, Dan Chu, was closed. Dan Chu is published by the immediate past president of the Saigon Newspaper Publishers Association, Vu Ngoc Cac. The ostensible reason for closure was that Dan Chu had Communist reporters on its staff, but the men in question had both recently received Vietnamese Government grants for travel abroad, which is always preceded by a careful police check. The real reason was apparently sharp criticism by Dan Chu of a senatorial ticket supported by the Minister of Information.

Midway in the campaign, Mr. Dzu charged that a grenade had been thrown in front of the house of one of his representatives in Dalat, while Mr. Huong claimed threats against his organizer in My Tho. The latter I was able to confirm. I also learned that, shortly afterwards, province chiefs were warned by Corps commanders not to be so obvious in their intimidations. There were no further charges of this kind during the rest of the campaign. But no candidate or his representative dared campaign in the villages.

The ability of a subtle hint of a threat to inhibit political action at the second echelon can only be understood against the background of incidents largely unknown to Americans. The assassination of Tran van Van last year was officially reported to be the work of a “VC”, but Vietnamese almost universally believe that this prominent southern member of the Constituent Assembly was liquidated by the secret police.

The case of the Buddhist School of Social Service has not been reported at all in the U.S. On June 14th,8 students working in a community development project at a village just a few miles north of Saigon were kidnapped, and have not been heard of since. On July 5th, 4 boys in the same project were assassinated. Both times the official report blamed “the VC”, but there is strong circumstantial evidence in both cases pointing to the complicity of government agents. The school was training successful Buddhist competitors to the government’s disastrous “Revolutionary Development” program.

3. Fraud on election day was extensive. perhaps producing 300-500.000 votes and inflating the total number of voters by the same number; in addition thousands of votes were produced by pressure exerted by the government through the military and civil service.

The manufacture of votes without voters was relatively easy because there was no effective check on whether the voter ever appeared personally at the polling place. The only record which officials could present was a string of voting card corners ostensibly clipped as voters entered the polls. But this proved nothing. Officials themselves could have brought dozens of voting cards to the polling place, clipped them, and then deposited an equivalent number of ballots in the box after the polling place closed. I personally witnessed two policemen who presented voting cards to be clipped just before the polls closed in a Cholon precinct—without themselves receiving any ballot. Though a list of registered voters was compiled before election day by district, in most provinces it was not compiled by polling place, so that voters could easily cast their ballots anyplace in the district; the voting card itself was the only proof of registration.

My estimate is based on my own observations and discussions with dozens of Vietnamese election observers in the week following the election. I talked also with American journalists and with Vietnamese school teachers who had been members of polling place committees, I also analyzed the returns in severel provinces rather carefully. For example, in Can Tho, where I had access to returns by polling place four days after the elections, officials readily admitted discrepancies amounting to several hundred votes. At least several thousands in Saigon and Gia Dinh were not allowed to vote either beoause the voter was not given his voting card before election day, with a variety of excuses, or because ballots “ran out” at the polling place early in the day, even though two million extra ballots were printed by the government’s own admission. No record has been kept of what happened to those ballots, which were supposedly insurance against “VC theft of ballots”.

In Gia Dinh, Thieu and Ky received over 100,000 votes more than their nearest rival, by far their largest margin in any province. Yet this is a dominantly urban province, most of whose inhabitants are of the same occupational, religious and educational make-up as citizens of Saigon, where Thieu and Ky came second.

Gia Dinh is also the province in which there was the most spectacular rise of registered voters from June to August, an increase of over 80,000.

In a province where Dr. Phan Quang Dan, Mr. Suu’s running mate, was a popular and well-known public figure, elected to the provincial council and to the Constituent Assembly, the Suu-Dan ticket came in a poor fourth with less than 10% of the votes in the province. The province chief of Gia Dinh is a relative of Gen. Loan, head of national police. Dr. Dan himself in an interview the day after the elections estimated that fraudulent votes probably amounted to about 10% of the total, i.e. 480,000. But he was unwilling to associate himself with any public charge of fraud. He is running for the premiership.

It has sometimes been said that the fact that Thieu and Ky received only 35% of the vote is proof of an honest ballot. For such an unpopular regime, however, this is a non-sequitur. While Ky had predicted that his ticket would get as much as 50% of the vote, Thieu had been more modest with 40%. There were two kinds of pressures operating on them. On the one hand, they might gain legitimacy before the world by winning a majority. But, given their unpopularity, this could only be achieved by massive fraud. Fraud on such a scale would have produced stronger domestic repercussions and might even have been noticed by foreign observers. It is probable that the US Embassy advised against a push to get a majority.

Reports of government pressure on the military and the civil service to support the Thieu-Ky ticket were innumerable. A military reorganization was announced before the election to be implemented after the election. This served to keep corps commanders, as well as province and district chiefs, on their toes. Even before the election there were some arrests, removals and transfers of military officers for failure to support the government ticket; for example, the assistant province chief of Long An province was removed to Saigon ten days before the election. The major was a member of the Tan Dai Viet party which supported Dzu.

The distribution of undesignated slush funds to Hoa Hao leaders by Gen. Ky was an important means for gaining support in the delta.

4. Rigging of the senate race was generally believed by knowledgeable Vietnamese to be much more blatant than in the presidential election, i.e. the final outcome of the senate race was the result not simply of vote counting but of bargaining between Thieu and

5. Voting for the senate was so complex that most Vietnamese selected at random.

My observation at polling places on election day was that the average voter did not spend more than 1 to 2 minutes in the voting booth to select 6 our of 48 ballots. Some reported a formula of “the three top and three bottom”. In some polling places the preferred six were on top when distributed. Other places the ballots of important opposition slates were not distributed at all.

The belief that the outcome was finally determined by a joint decision of Thieu and Ky was universal among defeated candidates. One powerful bit of circumstantial evidence is that, during the week before the reporting of final returns, the votes of some tickets went down, while others went up. The Tran Van Lam ticket, for instance, dropped out of the top six because of a loss of more than 40,000 votes: (Two weeks after the election he was restored to the select six).

The senate which resulted is dominated by Northern Catholics, many of whom were prominent during the Diem regime. Though this is probably in part due to rather effective Northern Catholic bloc voting, the unrepresentativeness of the Senate’s composition confirms in the minds of Southerners the presence of fraud. The Constituent Assembly is showing great reluctance to proclaim officially the results of the Senate election.

Somewhat surprisingly the U.S. Embassy in Saigon claimed that the Senate election was again proof of the honesty of the process. It was pointed out that the six tickets which, according to press reports, were receiving government backing did not all win. However, according to my Vietnamese informants, this merely means that “deals” with some Senate tickets were not lasting and/or that Thieu and Ky intentionally gave the impression to some candidates that they were backing slates which they, in fact, had abandoned. The intense competition between Thieu and Ky certainly increased the fluidity of these arrangements.

I have photostatic copies of voting cards issued to two women in Gia Dinh. Both received two cards on the same day at the same office, reporting the same address. The serial numbers make it clear that the two women were together when they received their second, as well as when they received their first, voting card. This double issuance was hardly accidental. If such multiple issuance was possible for civilians, how much more so for military men?

Every family that I talked to in Viet Nam who had a relative in the military reported that he had more than one voting card. Until two days before the election both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments denied knowledge of this situation. Then on Friday night before the election a radio broadcast by the Vietnamese Joint Chiefs of Staff reported “regretfully” that there had been a “mistake” and that some soldiers had received more than one voting card; they were asked to turn them in to their commanding officers. Whether they were turned in or not, these extra voting cards, perhaps amounting to hundreds of thousands, could have been used on election day. The returns in Gia Dinh, where there is a concentration of military camps, strongly suggests that many were.

Ballot box stuffing, in the sense of officials, not voters, placing ballots in the box, is of two types. In one the voting card to match the ballot was surrendered voluntarily to the official; in the other, officials refused to distribute voting cards to voters. I have already mentioned that the latter was widespread in urban areas. I found no one, however, who was willing to risk retaliation by signing an affidavit to this effect. Those I asked were persons I had every reason to trust. The former type was widespread, I learned, in the September 1966 elections, particularly in the villages. Obliging village or hamlet chiefs would advise peasants to hand over their voting cards “so the VC would not try to take them away”, as occasionally did happen.

They were also warned about the dangers of going out on election day and thus were only too happy when village and hamlet cbiefs offered to fulfill their voting obligation for them. (Hr. Patterson of the official observer team discovered in the delta how natural the idea of proxy voting seemed to a village elder.) It will probably take months, as it did in 1966, for news of such proxy voting to get to the cities. This is, of course, an effective means for increasing the percentage of voters voting, as well as for rigging the results. In Phong Dinh province my inspection of precinct level returns gave a hint that this technique may have been used in outlying villages. The percentage of invalid ballots reported was much lower than that in urban areas. Yet illiterates would naturally have more difficulty with the complex voting system than literates.

I am in possession of a signed statement by a chief of a polling station in Gia Dinh tbat there were 20 more ballots in the box at the beginning of counting than there were clipped corners of voting cards. At the polling station which I observed in Cholon there were 40 more voting card corners than there were ballots. They seemed quite embarrassed. Perhaps tbey were not expecting the presence of a foreign observer even after the polls closed.

The counting of ballots was generally so secret that the suspicion of fraud was created even if there was none. Police removed voters from the school yards where polls were usually located as soon as the polling places closed. Probably less than 10% of polling places throughout the country had opposition candidates’ observers; there were none in the villages. This was a result both of poor organization and of the fear of local people to be openly identified with an opposition leader. Under these circumstances it is understandable that a chief polling clerk could be told—as he reported to me—to produce an 80% turnout and a 50% vote for Ky and Thieu at his station.

It is hard to know bow honest the counting process itself was. The printing of illegal ballots certainly made honesty more difficult. I am in possession of a photostat of a ballot (I saw the original) which has the symbol and picture of Mr. Dzu, which would be noticed by the illiterate, but the name of Mr. Suu and his running mate. It is the latter whicb would probably be counted, though properly the ballot should have been invalidated. In one polling place in Gia Dinh a Vietnamese friend reported to me that the district chief came into the polling place during counting, asked the total number of voters who voted, was told 553, and then said, “Give Thieu 200”.

Most Vietnamese believed, however, that manipulation of the returns was more common between the district and the province. My own experience was that province chiefs were reluctant to reveal district level returns. Mr. Dzu’s complaint to the Constituent Assembly charged that his provincial representatives were frequently refused the right to see district returns. From two sources it was reported to me that in one district of Vinh Long province the number of votes first reported was greater than the number of registered voters. Later the higher number was adjusted to fit the lower, all the votes being taken away from one civilian candidate.

Further documentation of fraud would strengthen my charges. I had very little time to gather or analyze district level returns, however. And to expect to get signed statements by ordinary Vietnamese regarding instances of fraud in the present context there is totally unrealistic.

Vietnamese Views

6. Even without extensive documentary proof. it is crucial that most Vietnamese view the election as having involved widespread fraud—while recognizing it as an improvement over the Diem period—and thus cannot regard the government which results from such an election as legitimate.

One of the most fundamental principles of political analysis is that it is the belief of the political actor about the facts, not the facts themselves, which determines the actor’s behavior. Most Vietnamese I talked to, from a variety of political and religious persuasions, were willing to admit that the elections did not fulfill their worse fears; but they also insisted that it fell far short of their aspirations. The only way Thieu and Ky could have proved honesty was by losing. Without exception those persons who wanted to emphasize the progress and not the continued imperfections were angling for cabinet posts. The full extent of discontent will not be expressed until after a cabinet is chosen and until after the Lower House elections. But even now it seems clear that the great majority of educated Vietnamese, those who have provided leadership in the past and who will continue to do so in the future, do not regard Thieu and Ky in their “elected” status as significantly more legitimate than they were before the election. It is to be remembered that Asian tradition is much more likely to evaluate leadership in terms of personalities than in terms of legal process.

7. Vietnamese were more incensed about what the regarded as the deceiving report of the official American observers than the were about tbe behavior of their own government, especially since tbey considered tbe results of tbe election predetermined by U.S. backing for Generals Thieu and Ky.

Vietnamese did not forget that Mr. Lodge, who guided tbe observer team, had publicly and unequivocally supported tbe election of a military ticket, less tban a year ago. American pressure to produce a single military ticket and Ambassador Bunker’s August 18th statement throwing cold water on opposition charges of irregularities both reinforced the Vietnamese impression of American intervention on behalf of the military. Even the antics of Mr. Dzu were believed by many to be possible only because be had the backing of tbe CIA.

From the beginning Vietnamese feared that observers appointed by Pres. Johnson would whitewash the election. They were convinced that no foreign observer present in Vietnam only three days before the election could detect any fraud. Even I was warned three weeks earlier by some that my mission, to assess the honesty of the election, was futile. It was widely rumored that Vietnamese government officials had been advised to “go by the book” when foreign observers should appear.

In Vietnamese eyes American officials were attempting to wave the wand of purification over an election which was to a considerable degree fraudulent as a result of U.S. support: This was adding insult to injury.

Those few observers who took the trouble to meet unofficial Vietnamese were, however, appreciated such an organization.

It should be remembered that the draft election law prepared by the Constituent Assembly contained provision for a run-off, but this was eliminated by pressure from the military. Only such a run-off could have forced a wide civilian coalition. But it also threatened a civilian victory, and thus could not be risked.

Withdrawal of some candidates in favor of others was discussed even after the campaign began in August, but no agreement could be reached. Aside from personal pride and unrealistic hopes for victory, financial provisions of the election law discouraged civilian candidates from getting together. Withdrawal required reimbursing the government for those sums received for campaign expenses, about 10 million piastres per ticket. (Minor tickets did not spend all they received, and thus profited just by being candidates.)

Even though some Americans may have regarded such hope as unrealistic, the fact of the hope was real, and thus also of the disillusionment. (Paradoxically this hope existed side by side in the minds of many Vietnamese with a deep cynicism about the military’s determination to stay in power.)

11. Anti-Americanism has risen sharply in the last two years; nationalism is becoming stronger than fear of Communist takeover, thus pulling many educated Vietnamese toward the National Liberation Front.

Anti-Americanism among some English-speaking Vietnamese army officers has reached the point that they have pledged not to speak English again, thus forcing American advisors to use interpreters.

In a major delta town I had a long discussion with a group of the “old elite”. The group included a doctor, a court clerk, a school principal, and some teachers, all in their sixties. They spoke to me through a successful Saigon businessman who was born and brought up in that town and was a close friend of all of them. At the conclusion of the conversation,one said to me, “If the war lasts for another two years, many respectable citizens who today would never dream of it will be in the Liberation Front.” The statement had an autobiographical ring. Never in previous visits had Vietnamese said anything like this to me. Similar statements—not in answer to any question—were made by others in subsequent interviews.

12. Thus time is not “on our side”, as some Americans think, but prospects for “honourable settlement” i.e. one which avoids a quick Communist takeover, decline with each passing month. The urgency of American initiative for negotiation is now greater than most people recognize.

Biographical Information

Professor David Wurfel, chairman of the Committee on Asian Studies of the Department of Political Science, University of Missouri, was sent to Vietnam by the Division of Peace and World Order of the Methodist Church and the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, with the cooperation of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Unitarian-Universalist Association.

A product of Cornell University’s South East Asia Program, and a South East Asia specialist who has published widely on the politics and international relations of the region, Dr. Wurfel was last year a visiting associate professor at the University of Michigan in the Department of Political Science and the Center for South and South East Asian Studies. This was Prof. Wurfel’s sixth trip to Vietnam; his first visit was in 1956 as a Ford Foundation Area Training Fellow. Prof. Wurfel has lived in Asia for more than seven years, studying at the University of the Philippines and teaching at the University of Singapore and International Christian University in Tokyo.

From 1951-53 Southeast Asia Fellow at Cornell University; military service in Japan 1954-55; Ph.D. thesis research on foreign aid and social reform in Philippines under a Ford Foundation grant 1955-56; comparative study in Vietnam, October-November 1956; travel in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Teaching assistant in political science, Cornell University, beginning January 1957; part time instructor in Asian political science and history at nearby Wells College; completed work for Ph.D. in political science and Southeast Asian studies August 1959; assistant professor of political science at International Christian University in Tokyo, 1960 and 1961; August-December 1961 in Philippines, Malaya and Vietnam on Social Science Research Council grant.

Assistant professor of political science at University of Missouri, Columbia, September 1962; chairman of Committee on Asian Studies, 1963; Fulbright lecturer in political science, University of Singapore, June 1964-March 1965, spending more than a month in Vietnam in the interim; visiting associate professor of political science, International Christian University, April-July, 1965; associate professor at University of Missouri from September 1965; visiting associate professor of political science, University of Michigan, September 1966-April 1967 .

Participant, Philippine-American Assembly in Davao City, Philippines, February 1966, stoging in Vietnam on return trip; director of program for Mid-America Assembly on “The United States and Japan”, April, 1966, Columbia, Missouri; co-director of Fairlane Assembly on “The United States and the Philippines”, November 1966, Dearborn, Michigan; participant in study conference of Council on Vietnamese Studies, Wingspread Conference Center, Racine, Wisconsin, May 1967.


“Agrarian Reform in the Republic of Vietnam”, Far Eastern Survey (June 1951); “Vietnam: A Proposal”, Indian Quarterlv of International Affairs (March 1965); “The Saigon Political Elite”, Asian Survey (August 1967).

“The Philippines”, in Kahin, ed., Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia (Cornell, 1964); “The Philippines” in special issue on comparative political finance, Journal of Politics (August, 1963); “Philippine Elections”, Asian Survey (May, 1962); “Problems of Deco1onialization” in Go1ay, ed., The US and the Philippines (Prentice-Hall, 1966).

“Chinese Representation in the UN: A Proposal”, Christian Century (October 4, 1961); “Okinawa: Irredenta on the Pacific”, Pacific Affairs (Winter, 1962-63); chapter in Henderson, ed., Southeast Asia: Problems of US Policy (MIT, 1963).

Categories Philippines, The War Years