Vietnam has overhauled its leadership. The country’s National Assembly last week affirmed the individuals selected by the congress of the Vietnam Communist Party. Members of the new team are considerably younger than their predecessors, and their common characteristic is a commitment to economic reform.
The challenge for the new government — like those of all one-party states — is to clean up the corruption endemic to Vietnam without being deterred by the fear of undermining the Communist Party’s claim to rule.
The personnel changes were initiated in April when the Vietnam Communist Party convened the congress it holds every five years. At that time, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, President Tran Duc Luong and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van indicated their readiness to step down. Nominated to replace them were Mr. Nguyen Tan Dung as prime minister, Mr. Nguyen Minh Triet as president and Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong as National Assembly chair. The fourth member of the leadership, Mr. Nong Duc Manh, who, as head of the Communist Party, is the most powerful of all, was renominated for a second five-year term as general secretary.
As expected, the National Assembly approved the changes plus the appointments of nine new Cabinet members, who also represent a generational change in Vietnam’s leadership.
At 56, Mr. Dung is 16 years younger than his predecessor and the youngest prime minister since Vietnam was reunified in 1975. He has a background in the security service and served as deputy prime minister for eight years while being groomed for the top slot. He was also governor of Vietnam’s Central Bank.
Like Mr. Triet, the Communist Party chief for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Mr. Dung is from the south. This marks the first time that the government has been headed by two southerners. Traditionally the top posts have been balanced among officials from the country’s north, center and south.
A Politburo member since 1997, Mr. Triet has led the Communist Party in Ho Chi Minh City since 2000. As party head in Song Be province, he oversaw infrastructure development that turned his largely agricultural province into a favorite for business and second only to Ho Chi Minh City for foreign investment.
Mr. Triet is considered one of the more innovative economic thinkers in the country and has long favored a culture of accountability. He has pledged to use the presidency, usually a ceremonial post, to push the reform agenda.
Following through on reform tops the list of priorities of the new government. Two decades ago, Vietnam embraced “doi moi,” or renovation, to push economic growth. Doi Moi has made Vietnam one of the fastest growing countries in Southeast Asia. Growth reached 8.4 percent in 2005 and is projected to hit 8 percent again this year. But the process has been inconsistent as the impact of reform has been dulled by regular retrenchment. The biggest concern is the corruption that dogs the country.
In his inaugural speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Dung pledged to “push up economic reforms, build a law-based society and an administration that’s clean and close to the people.” Here, Mr. Triet’s experience should come in handy. While serving as head of the party in Ho Chi Minh City, he led the campaign to arrest Truong Van Cam, known as Nam Cam, the acknowledged leader of the underworld until he went on trial in 2003. That effort also ensnared several party officials.
While the new leadership understands its task, follow-through will be tough. Cleaning out the bad apples means admitting the failure of leadership. Moreover, a recent government decree could be used to target journalists trying to expose corruption.
Mr. Dao Dinh Binh, the outgoing transport minister, was allowed to retire even after bureaucrats in his ministry embezzled millions of dollars. Some National Assembly members wanted Mr. Binh fired, but that demand was rejected.
Fighting and beating corruption is essential if the country is to reach its goal of lifting the country out of poverty within two decades and becoming an industrialized nation by 2020. Entry into the World Trade Organization later this year will help, and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November will give the government the opportunity to showcase its accomplishments internationally.
With per capita income of just $640 a year, 80 percent of the population (83 million) still working in agriculture, and millions of people hungry to improve their lives, the new leadership should be able to show results quickly. But first the government needs to get its house in order. Vietnam’s future rests on its success in rooting out corruption.
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