Vietnam: Politics Lagging Behind Economic Change

2002

Professor David G. Marr

Does it matter that economic change has moved far ahead of political change in Vietnam during the past twelve years? Some foreign investors are quite content with Vietnam’s single-party dictatorship, contrasting its stability with upheavals and turmoil elsewhere in Asia. Other investors have pulled out because of the growing costs associated with red tape, corruption and general lack of transparency. Meanwhile, academics disagree among themselves about whether the Politburo’s inclination to deal with troubles as they surface will be enough to save its members when a major crisis occurs in the future. The 9th Communist Party Congress in April 2001 produced documents designed to sustain the status quo between competing factions and policy alternatives. After unprecedented public lobbying by supporters of different leaders, a compromise candidate, Nong Duc Manh, was endorsed as new General Secretary of the Party. Looking for any sign of ideological change, Vietnamese intellectuals noted that the term ‘proletarian dictatorship’ had been dropped from Congress characterisations of the political system, although it continued to crop up occasionally in Party periodicals. While the Party Central Committee has met more often during the past eight months than is normal, nothing released from these meetings suggests political innovation. On the other hand, Vietnam’s National Assembly is more lively than at any time since the late 1980s. Assembly representatives are criticising government performance on a wide front, from the glacial pace of administrative reform to persistent financial losses among state owned enterprises, from local Party and police officials wasting money on Toyota Crowns for themselves to the nationwide inability to enforce traffic laws or motorbike helmet requirements. Assembly Question Time is an opportunity for representatives to put government ministers on the spot, and for the press to chide individual ministers when they reply to a batch of questions from different representatives with a single prepared statement. Some representatives are gaining a reputation for impromptu eloquence, while others manage on TV to demonstrate by facial expression far more than they dare to put in words. Each representative has his/her favourite spending proposals, leading the National Assembly chair to ask rhetorically where all the money will come from. When representatives asked why the government increased central subsidies to particular provinces, the Minister of Finance retorted that it was the responsibility of the Assembly to pass the national budget, not to involve itself in local allocations. Although no one responded to that assertion, some eyebrows were raised, as Vietnam’s constitution grants the Assembly sweeping powers in principle. Party head Nong Duc Manh spent nine years chairing the National Assembly, so he may be confident of keeping it within bounds, or even of using it to improve his thin power base. After all, ninety per cent of Assembly representatives are Communist Party members. Representatives are strongly discouraged from forming voting blocs within the Assembly, although interest groups do exist and meet on occasion. The state controls all the TV stations and newspapers that report Assembly activities, and there is no equivalent to ‘Hansard’ or the ‘Congressional Record’ to enable access to full proceedings.

WATCHPOINT: The National Assembly may prove to be all smoke and no fire. Having been given additional political leeway, however, the Assembly may take the bit in its teeth some day.

 

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