'It is clear, however, that Vietnam’s 90m people won't be consulted on the Party’s next choice of prime minister, or for that matter, anything else; the government still does not allow free elections. Party congresses are effectively closed to the media, and following Hanoi politics is perhaps a bit like watching a football match through the wrong spectacles: The pitch and the general outlines of the action are clear enough, but not the footwork or the tackles.'
SOME Western advocacy groups imply, in their regular harangues of Vietnam's human-rights record, that the country is run by an all-powerful and well-oiled authoritarian regime. The truth, however, appears to be more complicated.
It is clear to analysts that the Ministry of Public Security operates a vast surveillance apparatus designed to silence political dissident—even on Facebook—and that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has major influence over key policy decisions. To wit: his emergency directives earlier this month helped to evacuate successfully nearly 800,000 people from coastal areas ahead of Typhoon Haiyan. Relief agencies praised his efficiency and foresight.
Yet the government is also, like a schoolyard, full of turf wars. Some provincial officials chafe at central directives, for example, while ministries openly undercut each other. And inside the ruling Communist Party, Mr Dung is said to be embroiled in a tug-of-war with a rival party faction led by Truong Tan Sang, the president, and Nguyen Phu Trong, the party's general secretary. Adam Fforde, a Vietnam specialist at Victoria University in Australia, wonders aloud if the country is a "land without a king."
However, the state-controlled press occasionally tosses out crumbs of information that indicate which politicians are advancing, or vice versa, through Hanoi’s opaque bureaucracies and vast patronage networks. A case in point was the appointment by the National Assembly, on November 13th, of two new deputy prime ministers. With the apparent blessing of Mr Dung and the Communist Party’s elite Politburo, the assembly chose Vu Duc Dam, a former assistant to a previous prime minister, and Pham Binh Minh, the current minister of foreign affairs. A current DPM, Nguyen Thien Nhan, has been dismissed and moved to the comparatively unglamorous position of heading the Homeland, or Fatherland, Front, an organisation tasked with mobilising support for the regime and selecting National Assembly candidates.
Seasoned observers say the reshuffle suggests a few interesting things about Vietnamese politics. The main takeaway is that Mr Dung appears to be reasserting his influence after rebounding from months of heavy internal criticism. A year ago he was forced by his rivals to publicly apologize for mismanaging the economy, but he is now filling his cabinet with loyal and highly competent allies. He may have his eye on 2016, when he will step down as prime minister but could remain in the Politburo. Although not all DPMs are Politburo members, the general view is that it certainly wouldn’t hurt Mr Dung to have some of his closest associates in top government positions.
Neither Mr Dam or Mr Minh are in the running for the premiership in 2016, in analysts’ view, and Mr Minh never will be because he is a career diplomat who doesn't have a wide-enough political base. But Mr Dam, who was until recently chairman of the government office—the rough equivalent to an American president's chief of staff—could eventually become a candidate for both the top job and a seat on the 16-member Politburo. Tuong Vu at the University of Oregon, in America, says the politician with a better chance of becoming prime minister in 2016 is the current first DPM, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is already a Politburo member.
However, Mr Minh has retained his position as head of the foreign ministry, and his DPM election could help allay lingering concerns among top Vietnamese officials that the country can't pursue an effective foreign policy if its foreign ministry lacks pull in the Politburo. Mr Minh, who has a graduate degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University, in America, and has served as a diplomat in both New York and Washington, is not yet a candidate for the Politburo, and he may never be. But Professor Vu said last week that Mr Minh’s DPM appointment would be a “compromise solution” designed to raise the ministry’s profile.
It is difficult to predict whether or to what extent Mr Minh's new title will have any direct bearing on Vietnam's human-rights record or its negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an American-led free-trade agreement involving a dozen countries. (America’s treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, visited Hanoi on November 14 to help drum up support for it.) Equally unknown is who will get the premier nod in 2016. Analysts say it probably won’t be Nguyen Thien Nhan, the recently departed DPM. Some see Mr Nhan’s dismissal as both a sidelining and a reflection on his allegedly poor performance as education minister.
It is clear, however, that Vietnam’s 90m people won't be consulted on the Party’s next choice of prime minister, or for that matter, anything else; the government still does not allow free elections. Party congresses are effectively closed to the media, and following Hanoi politics is perhaps a bit like watching a football match through the wrong spectacles: The pitch and the general outlines of the action are clear enough, but not the footwork or the tackles.
(Photo credit: AFP)