Vietnam’s Anti-Climatic Showdown at the Sixth Party Plenum

By Carl Thayer

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung still holds his position, overcoming rumblings he would be compelled to step down during the Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee's sixth plenum. Source: World Economic Forum's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

When the timing of Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee’s sixth plenum was brought forward unexpectedly, Vietnam’s political elite was abuzz with rumors that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung would be forced to step down for his mismanagement of the economy and his failure to curb the growth of corrupt interest groups. In the end, the plenum, one of the longest in Vietnam’s post-unification history, produced an anti-climax.

Three important developments form the backdrop to the sixth plenum. First, the fourth plenum of the Vietnam Communist Party’s Central Committee, which met in December 2011, adopted a major resolution on party building. This led to an intense campaign of criticism and self-criticism examining the weak points of party organs and individuals.

Second, party infighting became increasingly visible in the months leading up to the plenum. It appears that a loose coalition formed around President and Politburo member Truong Tan Sang and Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to oppose – if not bring down – Prime Minister Dung.  In August, Nguyen Duc Kien, a private banker with close ties to the prime minister’s daughter was arrested. A concerted effort was made to expose widespread corruption in the Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (Vinashin), a state-owned enterprise favored by the prime minister.

Third, Vietnam’s economic malaise, particularly high inflation and the devaluation of the dong produced widespread public expressions of discontent. In May, several new blogs appeared that targeted top leaders. Prime Minister Dung received the lion’s share of criticism for his handling of the economy, nepotism, and tolerance of a network of corrupt officials.

A preliminary report on the criticism and campaign was submitted to the sixth plenum for review by the Central Committee. This report unanimously recommended that the Central Committee consider appropriate disciplinary action against the Politburo and Secretariat and a “comrade member of the Politburo [read Dung].”

The plenum spent much time discussing this report. It appeared that Dung’s fate was sealed October 12 when rumors surfaced that 140 of the 175 members of the Central Committee were in favor of his removal.  By October 14, the rumors reversed. Reportedly, only six members of the Central Committee spoke against Dung, while over 70 percent of the Central Committee favored retaining him.

According to the plenum closing speech, the Central Committee carefully considered the Politburo’s recommendations and decided not to impose discipline on the Politburo and instead directed the party’s leading body to take urgent measures to overcome shortcomings so that hostile forces could not take advantage of this situation.

Analysts surprised that Dung survived may have confused the role of prime minister in a liberal democratic system with the role in a communist one-party state. Dung is both prime minister, responsible for cabinet ministers and state organs, and a comrade member of the Politburo, a collective decision-making body. The prime minister promoted high economic growth, foreign investment, and Vietnam’s integration into the global economy. This strategy produced high growth but also high inflation, which wiped out many economic gains causing dissatisfaction among many.

Dung promoted the creation of 12 major conglomerates, but failed to exercise proper supervision over them, particularly Vinashin and the Vietnam National Shipping Lines (Vinalines). Their directors quickly became mired in large-scale corruption. Dung was compelled to acknowledge personal responsibility before the National Assembly before he was re-elected to his post last year.

So why wasn’t Dung forced to resign? The answer lies in the realm of party politics. It seems clear that Dung had sufficient support in the central state and provincial and local party blocs to scuttle any attempt to formally censure him.

Vietnam’s rapid economic growth has resulted in the office of the prime minister becoming increasing powerful, overshadowing the party and leading to a large patronage network that benefited from Dung’s high-growth and lax supervision policies– including other “comrade members of the Politburo.”

The Politburo criticism report identified several major shortcomings of the party resulting from these recent trends:

  • Failure to prevent or take action against “not a small number of party officials” who have became “degraded in political thought, morality, and lifestyle,” pursued wealth and power for personal ends and became corrupt.
  • Failure to take action to overcome “negative phenomena” such as paying money for university degrees, jobs, and promotions.
  • Loose management over state-owned enterprises, resulting in massive debts.

So what’s the bottom line?

1. Despite Nguyen Tan Dung’s many faults, he was not forced to resign because it was thought this would be politically destabilizing to Vietnam’s one-party system. If Dung resigned as prime minister, he would probably also have to give up his seat on the Politburo and Central Committee.  This could have triggered renewed factional in-fighting.

2. Dung has had some of his powers as prime minister clipped by the Central Committee, and it will no longer be business as usual for him. The Central Committee has in effect imposed a reform agenda on both Dung and the Politburo. The revival of the Central Committee’s Economic Commission and renewed attention to the grooming of middle level party officials for party posts will be at the expense of prerogatives Dung long exercised.

3. The Central Committee can be expected to keep closer watch over its reform program. The next party plenum should meet before the 2013 Lunar New Year February 9-12 and Dung will be in the sights of those who want to clean up the economic mess resulting from his “high growth” approach.

4. Vietnam’s anti-climactic sixth plenum has produced a Vietnamese version of a “Mexican standoff” in which no faction can emerge as the clear winner. The political in-fighting that was witnessed this year can be expected to continue as factional groupings attempt to influence the scope and pace of reform.

Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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