Vietnam’s new leadership takes center stage amid tough challenges

With the election of a new prime minister on Thursday, three of the top four leadership positions in Vietnam’s politics have been officially filled by new holders. The question raised is whether these new leaders can bring about changes that enable this communist-ruled country to overcome the numerous pressing challenges it’s facing.

Expedited leadership handover

Nguyen Xuan Phuc was named as Vietnam’s new Premier by its outgoing National Assembly on April 7. Phuc, 61, is now de facto the second highest figure in the one-party state’s political hierarchy. Among other important duties, he will oversee the country’s economy and represent it at regional and international fora.

New Vietnam PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc

New Vietnam PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc

Five days earlier, the legislature approved Tran Dai Quang as the new head of state of the 93-million nation. Quang, 60, led the Ministry of Public Security for the past five years. Though the presidency remains a primarily ceremonial role, its power has been significantly enhanced in recent years.

On March 31, the 500-member parliament elected Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as its new head. Ngan, 61, is the first woman to hold this role, which is one part of Vietnam’s quartet of power.

Though, on the paper, it is the “highest organ of state power,” the National Assembly is virtually controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Politburo, Central Committee and National Congress. Its main task is to rubber-stamp important decisions regarding the country’s leadership and policy that have already been made by these supreme organs.

Phuc, Quang and Ngan were already chosen for their respective position at the CPV’s 12th National Congress in January, which also re-elected party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

Usually, the nominations for these three top posts and other important positions in Vietnam’s politics would be approved in July by a new National Assembly, which is set to be elected in May. However, this normal route was ditched, making some Vietnamese analysts argue that the expedited leadership handover was unconstitutional.

Yet, in a single-party state, where the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) wields overarching control of all political processes and decision-making, the move is not surprising.

At the January Congress, several top leaders were not elected to the 200-member Central Committee and the 19-member Politburo. These include Nguyen Sinh Hung, Truong Tan Sang and Nguyen Tan Dung, who are the outgoing legislative head, president and premier respectively.

Their exclusion from these two all-powerful bodies means they effectively entirely retired from Vietnam’s politics. Thus, for both political and practical reasons, it is expected that they were rapidly relieved of their duties and replaced by the new leaders the party had already picked.

Numerous and enormous challenges

An immediate and practical reason for the acceleration of the leadership handover is that, in May, Vietnam will receive President Barack Obama on his first trip to the country. The visit will also be the first by a sitting American president to its former war enemy since 2006, when President George W. Bush made a four-day visit to Vietnam.

The leaders will welcome and hold talks with the US president at a time when both Washington and Hanoi have sought closer ties due to Beijing’s growing aggressiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

A Chinese marine surveillance vessel sail in the South China Sea. In the background is an oil rig China illegally deployed in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in May 2014.

A Chinese marine surveillance vessel sail in the South China Sea. In the background is an oil rig China illegally deployed in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in May 2014.

Besides territorial challenges from China, Vietnam is faced with other pressing issues that need urgently to be addressed. These include huge public debt, a high budget deficit, a scandal-hit banking system and an inefficient and corrupt state-owned sector.

Judging by international indicators, Vietnam fares quite badly. It trails far behind many countries of Southeast and East Asia in many areas. After 30 years of Doi Moi (renovation policy), Vietnam’s GDP per capita remains only a fraction of that enjoyed by the region’s other countries, e.g. Singapore and Malaysia.

In 2015, outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung acknowledged that “Vietnam’s competitiveness is now the lowest among the ASEAN+6 countries.” In the same year, the one-party state, whose media is highly censored, ranked 175th in Reporters Without Borders’ Freedom of Press Index, far behind the nine other ASEAN members.

To deal effectively with those challenges that can help their country shorten the gaps with its regional peers, Vietnam’s new leaders have to undertake new and bold reforms. However, unlike elsewhere, in this communist-ruled country, it is not always inevitable that new leaders will bring new policies.

New motivation, new policies?

At a press conference on March 18, Nguyen Hanh Phuc, the National Assembly’s general secretary, was quoted by Vietnam’s state-run media as saying it would be too long to wait until July to endorse the new leadership.

flagThe reason he gave is that 2016 is the first year of the implementation of the new resolution made by the party at the January congress and thus “new spirit, new motivation, new impetus” is needed to implement the party resolution from the beginning.

This somehow indicates that the first and foremost duty of the new leadership is to implement the policies that the party adopted three months ago.

At that five-yearly congress, though pledging to continue the Doi Moi that it initiated three decades ago, the CPV decided to firmly pursue its old Marxism-Leninism. In many people’s views, its commitment to an ideology that increasingly appears outdated to the vast majority of Vietnam’s population, who wholeheartedly embrace a free market economy, prevents the CPV from undertaking the radical political and economic reforms that the country greatly needs.

That the party chose Nguyen Phu Trong, 71, a Marxist-Leninist scholar and believer, over Nguyen Tan Dung, 66, who was widely seen as the front-runner until shortly before the congress, for the party’s supreme post also illustrates that the CPV will maintain the status quo.

Whilst he left a mixed legacy, Dung, who was PM since 2006, was regarded as a charismatic, strong-minded and economic liberal leader. Concerns that he could become a strongman, and overlook the party and its traditional consensus leadership were believed to be a key reason why party conservatives omitted him.

It is for the same reason that the party nominated Phuc for the post of prime minister. In terms of personality and leadership style, Phuc is seen as in contrast to what Dung stands for. Though he was the standing deputy prime minister for the last five years, he remains a relatively low-key figure without any notable achievements. Moreover, as he is new to his role, it is very unlikely that he will dare to embark on new and radical changes.

The unprecedented appointment of a top police general for the role of president also hints that the country will not see greater political openness in the years to come. The security apparatus, which Tran Dai Quang joined as a teenager and was promoted to lead in 2011, has sweeping powers, including identifying and heading off any political threats to the regime. It is often criticized by western governments, international rights organizations and Vietnamese activists for its harassment and imprisonment of regime critics. It is unclear whether in his new role, Quang can help change Vietnam’s image.

Of the three newly-elected leaders, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan is probably the most favored among the Vietnamese public and her communist comrades. Through the roles she previously assumed, including Vice-chair of the National Assembly, Minister for Labor and Social Affairs and Deputy Finance Minister, Ngan has made a good impression.

In 2013 and 2014, the National Assembly held confidence votes for members of the government and on both occasions, Ngan recorded the most number of “high confidence” votes.

The approval rating she received in the parliament this time was also relatively higher than that of Quang and Phuc. While she was elected with 95.5% of votes whereas Quang and Phuc won 91.5 and 90.3% respectively.

However, Ngan cannot be a game changer because she is much less influential than the triumvirate of party chief, prime minister and state president. Among the 19 politburo members, only four, including Ngan, come from the country’s south. Leaders from the southern part tend to be less dogmatic and more pragmatic than those from the north.

Or much more of the same?

Judging by the direction and the leadership chosen at the CPV’s 12th Congress in January, barring an unexpected change, Vietnam will not experience a radical economic and political reform – or another Doi Moi – in the next five years as many people from outside and even within the party have long hoped and called for.

What the country may see is gradual change in some areas. A litmus test of whether Vietnam’s domestic politics will witness some changes or be much more of the same will be how independent candidates, including activists, fare during May’s parliamentary elections.

If a handful of some 100 independent candidates made the ballot box – or better, were elected – this would be a clear signal that the CPV is willing to open up political space. In contrast, if none of them pass the long and complex vetting process, which is strictly controlled by the party, this would indicate that Vietnam’s new leadership still strongly resists political change.

While Vietnam’s internal politics, which has remained virtually unchanged during the last seven decades, is highly unlikely to change, its foreign policy, especially its relationship with the US and China, has significantly shifted in recent years.

Despite ideological similarities, Hanoi’s interaction with Beijing has become markedly edgy due to the latter’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. A number of recent signs signify that Vietnam’s China policy has significantly shifted. This trend is likely to continue under Vietnam’s new leadership, unless China softens its posture and actions in the South China Sea.

Images from 1988 sea battle between Vietnam and China

Images from 1988 sea battle between Vietnam and China

The CPV’s permissiveness in recalling a naval battle against China in 1988 and Vietnam’s recent seizure of a Chinese vessel for encroaching into its territorial waters, which was widely reported by its state media, are signs that Hanoi has become more open and direct in dealing with China.

The vessel-capture incident is remarkable because Chinese ships had intruded into Vietnam’s waters many times. Yet, instead of being caught and retained, they had been let off with warnings or just chased away.

The latest move by Vietnam may show that Hanoi has become tougher in protecting Vietnam’s maritime territory.

It is also worth noting that in his inaugural speech, Vietnam’s new prime minister vowed to “firmly defend the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” This rhetoric is likely aimed at the domestic audience, which often criticize their government of being too restrained in its handling of disputes with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Yet, it could also signal that Vietnam’s new leadership will not submit to China on territorial issues.

Whilst Vietnam’s relationship with its communist neighbour has deteriorated, its relations with the US remarkably progressed even though Hanoi and Washington remain on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. The upcoming visit by President Obama is likely to further Vietnam-US ties.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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