On this day October 23, 1955

Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem defeated Emperor Bao Dai in a fraudulent referendum supervised by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on the future of the monarchy in South Vietnam.

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PM Ngo Dinh Diem

The State of Vietnam referendum of 1955 determined the future form of government of the State of Vietnam, the nation that was to become the Republic of Vietnam. It was contested by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who proposed a republic, and former emperor Bao Dai.

Bao Dai had abdicated as emperor in 1945 and at the time of the referendum held the title of head of state. Diem won the election, which was widely marred by electoral fraud, with 98.2% of the vote. In the capital Saigon, Diem was credited with over 600,000 votes, even though only 450,000 people were on the electoral roll. He accumulated tallies in excess of 90% of the registered voters, even in rural regions where opposition groups prevented voting.

The referendum was the last phase in the power struggle between Bao Dai and his prime minister. Bao Dai disliked Diem and had frequently attempted to undermine him, having appointed him only because he was a conduit to American aid. During the period, the country was going through a period of insecurity, as Vietnam had been temporarily partitioned as a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War.

The State of Vietnam controlled the southern half of the country, pending national elections that would reunify the country under a common government. The Vietnamese National Army was not in full control of the country, with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects running their own administrations in the countryside with their private armies, while the Binh Xuyen organised crime syndicate controlled the streets of Saigon. Despite Bao Dai’s interference, Diem had managed to subdue the private armies and enforce government over the country by mid-1955.

Emboldened by his success, Diem began to plot Bao Dai’s downfall. He scheduled a referendum for October 23, 1955 and pushed Bao Dai out of the political scene, despite the former emperor’s attempts to derail the poll. In the period leading up to the vote, campaigning for Bao Dai was banned, while Diem’s election campaign focused on personal attacks against Bao Dai. The government-controlled media launched polemical attacks on Bao Dai, and police went from door to door warning people of the consequences of failing to vote.

After his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu successfully rigged the poll, Diem proclaimed himself president of the newly-created Republic of Vietnam.

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