By Jonathan London
Vietnam retains a one-party political system in which basic freedoms are systematically curtailed. And yet politics in the country have suddenly become fluid, animated by the intensifying and unprecedentedly open competition that has emerged within and around the Communist Party of Vietnam. Vietnam, it seems, has entered a qualitatively new stage in its political development, one in which the country’s politics are more transparent, uncertain, and interesting than that to which we have long been accustomed.
Some of the most striking manifestations of these developments are found at the commanding heights of the party. Here, the twisting political fortune and enigmatic personae of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung provides a particularly interesting illustration of Vietnam’s changing political scene.
The prime minister’s unfolding career is at once fascinating and consequential. Appointed to his post with considerable fanfare and a reform billing, Dung’s tenure has been defined largely by his seemingly weak stewardship of the economy. Even as Dung himself is but one player in an economy beset with institutional weaknesses.
Vietnam’s recent economic slowdown, though owing in part to the global recession and corresponding dips in foreign direct investment, has had much more to do with the country’s institutional deficits. These include unhealthy doses of patronage, a dire lack of transparency, and self-interested political fragmentation. Vietnam’s longstanding leadership vacuum has not helped matters. And Dung’s leadership in economic affairs could certainly be questioned. On his watch, Vietnam’s economy has been buffeted by a spate of multi-billion dollar scandals involving state enterprises and threatened by an accumulating mountain of bad debt.
At critical junctures, the prime minister has expressed contrition for his alleged shortcomings. Yet his faults must be viewed within a broader perspective. For all his shortcomings, Dung acts within the institutional constraints of the party, one whose power and pathologies pervade the economy itself.
Critics of Dung, including advocates of real political reform operating within and outside the party and government, have highlighted the prime minister’s ties to ill-gotten wealth. They have emphasized his allegedly self-serving political ties to police and military agencies. And they have bemoaned his apparent failures with respect to such critical issues as human rights and constitutional reforms. Staying ahead in party politics, these critics and skeptics assume, is what matters to Dung, rather than real reforms. Indeed, there has been speculation in some quarters that the prime minister is intent on positioning himself to assume the post of president when his term as prime minister expires in 2016, a post that Vietnam’s revised constitution has invested with greater powers, combining leadership of the party, state, and in some respects the military along the lines of the current Chinese model.
Even within the party, Dung remains controversial, as is reflected in a number of testing moments. Dung’s reappointment as prime minister in 2011 was hard-fought given his underwhelming performance so that his reappointment was at times in real doubt. At the close of 2012, the prime minister was nearly pushed from power by his own Politburo comrades only to be “saved” in spectacular fashion by dissension within the ranks of the Central Committee, which invited the entire Politburo to reflect on its collective shortcomings.
Finally, last spring, when the party-controlled National Assembly held confidence votes on the performance of ministers and officials, it was Dung who garnered the most disparate pattern of favorable and unfavorable ratings. All of these trials might be expected to have severely weakened Dung’s stature. Yet the opposite seems to have occurred, particularly in the recent past.
Over the past several months, Dung has reasserted himself as Vietnam’s most formidable and intellectually spirited leader, and he has done so both on the international and domestic fronts. At last June’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Dung gave what was perhaps the most effective speech in Vietnamese diplomatic history, communicating in exceedingly clear terms Vietnam’s perspectives on regional security and on the need for regional powers to act responsibly.
More important still have been Dung’s victories in recent party and government elite personnel decisions. Here Dung has not only survived Politburo power plays, but he has pulled maneuvers of his own by blocking the appointment of rivals’ favorites while at the same time installing a number of “rising stars” widely seen as his allies. Take, for example, the former education minister, deputy prime minister, and politburo member Nguyen Thien Nhan’s recent reassignment to head the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella organization of mass organizations. Initial speculation that the reposting amounted to a demotion for Nhan has swiftly given way to the sense that Dung had masterfully maneuvered Nhan to clear the path for bringing additional allies into the Politburo and government with an eye on the next party congress in 2016.
What are we to make of Dung? While he has spoken clearly of the need for reforms, his time in government has not seen meaningful reforms materialize. And does this even matter? Is Vietnam’s political system simply too fragmented and patrimonial for any single political leader to make a critical leadership difference? Given its location, ample supplies of low-wage labor, and people’s astonishing work ethic, Vietnam remains full of potential. Yet the country continues to be dragged down by largely self-inflicted wounds. Vietnam’s party and state have ample supplies of bright and talented people. Still the state machinery lacks the leadership necessary to overcome its own feudalistic paralysis.
Is Dung the man to change this? Don’t count him out. In recent days, pessimism regarding Dung’s promise has faded in dramatic fashion largely owing to the prime minister’s 2014 New Year’s message. In it, Dung delivered a powerful, substantive, and persuasive case for the need for reforms. His speech was unprecedented in its intellectual force and clarity. Among other things, it called for greater democracy, accountability, and transparency, as well as the need for a more competent, disciplined, and market-regarding state.
In his speech, Dung made repeated references to Ho Chi Minh — mandatory in Vietnamese politics. Clearly, however, it is Dung’s energetic reform message and commensurate actions that Vietnam most needs. In Vietnam’s politics, the collective demands of intra-party consensus have long trumped individual initiative and in this way have tended to discourage and suffocate reform-minded leaders. More recently, interest group politics has produced a debilitating political stalemate. In this context, the survival and ascendance of Dung provides a most intriguing development.
Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong where he is Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre and Programme Leader for the Master of Science in Development Studies. London is editor of Politics in Contemporary Viet Nam (Palgrave 2014) and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters.