By Zach Abuza
On November 15, Vietnam’s National Assembly held a vote of confidence for 50 members of the government. The vote was an internal referendum on the Vietnam Communist Party’s performance as the vast majority are members of the Central Committee, and seven are members of the 17-man Politburo.
Vietnam’s legislature has always been an anomaly in the communist world and is by no means a rubber stamp for party decisions. Indeed, legislators routinely grill government ministers on live TV and have rejected Politburo-endorsed candidates, have refused to ratify treaties, slashed budgets, and challenged questionable government spending, such as the north- south high speed rail link. Although 80 percent of the legislators are party members and the other 20 percent rigorously screened and weeded out by the party’s Fatherland Front, the National Assembly is an embodiment of the Vietnamese character: plucky and independent.
The recent vote of confidence had its limits. Legislators could only vote one of three ways: high confidence, confidence, low confidence. There was no opportunity to vote “no confidence.” But it was not just political theater. If two-thirds of the assembly’s 485 delegates gave someone a “low confidence” vote, it would automatically trigger a no confidence vote, in which a mere majority would lead to someone’s dismissal.
The year 2013 was the first time that the vote was held, and the results were telling. For Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, a politburo member, 32 percent of the votes were for “low confidence.” The governor of the State Bank, Nguyen Van Binh, received the highest number of “low confidence votes” with 42 percent.
But the results were indicative of the overall mood of the country: those responsible for the economy and bread and butter issues, got pilloried. In fact, assembly members were so critical, that there was discussion about whether to scrap this year’s vote or to keep the results secret. It was the delegates who demanded that the vote be continued. And they led by example: 18 of the 50 officials who were judged (36 percent) were leaders of the National Assembly.
So what were the results in 2014? Overall they were better than in 2013. Some 50 percent of the votes were for “high confidence,” 39 percent “confidence,” and only 11 percent “low confidence.” There was a huge range. The best rated official only received 1.8 percent of her votes as “low confidence.” Meanwhile, the Minister for Natural Resources and the Environment received less than 18 percent of his votes as those of “high confidence.”
Several of the lowest ranked leaders in 2013 did very well in the 2014 vote. At the top of that list was Prime Minister Dung. In 2013, he was attacked for corruption, poor management, and his role in the $4 billion Vinashin ship-building company scandal. But with a growing economy, Dung’s advocacy of economic reform including membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and privatization of state-owned enterprises, and the fact that he was the most outspoken defender of Vietnam’s sovereignty when China in May moved an oil exploration rig off the dispute Paracel Islands, he recovered. Fully 64 percent of the delegates gave him “high confidence,” and only 14 percent “low confidence.” Likewise, the Central Bank governor received 65 percent high confidence.
As a block, the leadership of the National Assembly polled the best. The top vote getter was one of the newest members of the Politburo, the deputy chairman of the National Assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. Her boss, Nguyen Sinh Hung, also polled high, receiving 340 “high confidence” votes. Indeed, the average for all 18 members of the assembly leadership was 295 votes for “high confidence,” far above the average of 183 for all 50 officials voted on. This suggests that the delegates have high degrees of confidence in the National Assembly leadership and think they are doing a better job than the ministries and sectors that they oversee.
The individuals responsible for national security also polled very high. The Minister of National Defense Phung Quang Thanh received 65 percent “high confidence” votes and 27 percent “confidence.” Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh received 66 percent “high confidence” votes and 30 percent “confidence.” These men defended Vietnamese sovereignty assiduously in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, while improving diplomatic and bilateral military relations with the United States, Japan, India and ASEAN.
President Truong Tan Sang continues to enjoy very high levels of support. He received 78 percent “high confidence” votes.
Those responsible for law and order received mixed results. The minister of Public Security, the minister of Justice, and chief justice of the Supreme Court all polled well but those responsible for dealing with corruption — the Inspector General and the Chief Government Auditor — fared worse.
Four ministers scored very poorly: Health; Culture, Sports, and Tourism; Interior; and Science and Technology., These four were singled out for their management failings.
The other way to read the results is as a straw poll ahead of Communist Party congress in early 2015. While Prime Minister Dung is not going to serve another term as prime minister, he is in a much stronger position to orchestrate the promotion of his protege, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. A year ago, Dung was in no position to do so. The deputy chairman of the National Assembly and Politburo member Ngan is in a strong position to become the next chairman of the National Assembly.
The assembly confidence vote is a small window into a political system that is extremely opaque and it sheds light on the thinking and concerns of the delegates. A year ahead of the party congress that will elect new party and state leaders for Vietnam, the vote is important as a bellwether of party support for individuals who may be tipped for Politburo posts as well as the strength of senior party leaders to promote their protégés.