Confidence vote exposes Vietnam tensions

Nguyen Tan Dung, left, Barack Obama and Thein Sein at the Asean-US summit in Burma. Picture: Reuters
Nguyen Tan Dung, left, Barack Obama and Thein Sein at the Asean-US summit in Burma. Picture: Reuters
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POLITICIANS in Vietnam cast their ballots in a confidence vote on the country’s Communist leaders tomorrow, but few expect change.

After all, those charged with censuring or otherwise the ruling classes are largely members of the party themselves.

But as those at the top prepare for a period of significant soul-searching, it does offer one tangible benefit – a rare glimpse into the dynamics of a party faced with unprecedented demand for at least some change.

Though heads are unlikely to roll, tomorrow’s ballot on the performances of about 50 top officials will provide a degree of accountability.

Vietnam is changing fast, and rumours are rife of fissures within the secretive party over how to address that change while preserving the status quo.

Experts broadly pit conservative idealogues against the more liberal, capitalist apparatchiks of a party traditionally ruled by consensus.

“This vote provides a show of openness to try to calm tensions, but what it’s done is showed there’s infighting between different factions,” political analyst Nguyen Quang A said.

Discontent has been simmering in Vietnam over corruption, land grabs and an inefficient, state-centred economy, problems entrenched during a period of boom growth and now festering due to the scope and pace of measures to fix them.

Experts see no challenge to the party’s grip on power in the foreseeable future and say the trajectory of the £113 billion economy, and whether it realises its much-touted potential as an emerging market star, depend on which faction gains the upper hand.

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The vote comes just over a year before a five-yearly congress, when the party chooses who will lead a manufacturing dynamo with hi-tech ambitions as it pursues deeper western engagement and a slew of trade pacts – potential game-changers requiring concessions that may test lucrative patronage networks.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement about pursing the big trade deals,” Mr Quang A said. “It’s more about how this affects the interests of powerful individuals and groups.”

Vietnam’s first ever confidence vote last year may have backfired, with the outcome lending weight to speculation of unspoken rivalry between the president and prime minister.

Prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung won the full support of just 42 per cent of the national assembly and was given “low confidence” ratings by about a third of the house, in contrast to president Truong Tan Sang, who won 330 high-confidence votes from the 498 politicians and only 28 low-confidence ballots.

Analysts believe Mr Dung will seek to groom a successor before he retires ahead of the 2016 congress, and he may have strengthened his influence this year by pushing reforms of a banking sector plagued by bad debt and the partial privatisation of hundreds of cash-haemorrhaging state-owned enterprises.

“The outcomes [of the vote] will shed some light on the current state of factional politics,” Phuong Nguyen, a research associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in US capital Washington, said.

“It is believed the PM has rebounded from last year’s blow, if not consolidated his power, for that matter. We’ll see if the confidence vote will reflect that.”

Mr Dung, who met US president Barack Obama on Thursday, may have also gained some leverage from his pursuit of stronger American ties and his defiance of China during a recent row over maritime sovereignty.

The stand-off with China looks to have sharpened debate within the party about dependence on its neighbour, shown in June when 61 current and former party members sent an open letter to the Central Committee saying failure to escape China’s orbit would be “a crime on our nation”.

Obama gives a hand to leaders at Asian summit

Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, left, US president Barack Obama and Burma’s president Thein Sein perform a little Auld Lang Syne-style routine before the start of the Asean-US summit in Burma.

Mr Obama headed to the country confident that the government, which replaced military rule in 2010, is making progress on democracy, defence and trade – groups including Human Rights Watch urged him to use the trip to push for further reform. The US will remain mindful of the strategic usefulness of such an ally as China pushes for influence.

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