Analysts evaluate government changes

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Anti-corruption advocates and international experts hope a new president and National Assembly will get tough on graft and economic problems

A boy walks with water buffaloes in Lao Cai Province's Sapa District in northwest Vietnam. Anti-corruption advocates and international analysts hope that Vietnam's new leadership will get tough on graft and economic problems.

Le Hien Duc, 80, worries that she won't be able to help all the people who need her.

The retired school teacher and grandmother of eight has become Vietnam's best-known whistleblower. Case documents and complaints from disgruntled people around the country have piled up in a corner of her house in Hanoi.       

"Corruption is only getting worse, day by day," said Duc, who won Transparency International's Integrity Award in 2007. "Over the past five years, the number of complaints I receive has jumped from dozens to thousands, every day."

Duc, who used to work as a message decoder for revered founding father Ho Chi Minh, has spent her retirement poring over complaints from people all over the country. Even in her old age, she has continued to petition the authorities in the search for justice.

But Duc says she's only seen a small fraction of the complaints addressed. She remains undaunted.

"I will continue fighting corruption," she said. "Otherwise the poor suffer most."

Low on the list

Vietnam ranked 111th out of 163 countries on the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index in 2006, scoring 2.6 points on a scale of zero to 10. Last October, the country was 116th out of 178 countries with 2.7 points.

Party echelons have acknowledged that rampant graft and abuse of power are holding Vietnam back. Weeding out corruption has become a major talking point in Vietnam's diagnosis of its dire economic situation.

At the National Congress Party, in January, Truong Tan Sang, then serving as the Party's de facto second-in-command, told delegates that Vietnam must step up its crackdown on pervasive corruption and mismanagement.

"Some senior party members lack example in morality and lifestyle," Sang said in his speech.

Six months later, Sang has been elected as Vietnam's new president, replacing retiring Nguyen Minh Triet. Sang was confirmed on Monday (July 25) by more than 97 percent of the newly-elected National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature.

Following his appointment, Sang once again confirmed his determination to press ahead with the fight against "graft, red tape, and wastefulness" that has pervaded the country.

The commitment has been welcomed by people from international government analysts.

"This is an important problem and I am glad the President has decided to take a strong stand on it," said Edmund Malesky, an assistant professor at the University of California in San Diego who studies Vietnamese politics.

But Malesky also noted that, in terms of the strict powers allocated by the Vietnamese Constitution, the President is less able to tackle the issue than the Prime Minister, who has more direct control of the bureaucracy, or the General Secretary, who has authority over the Party Inspectorate.  

"Thus, while the President can certainly raise the issue at the highest levels of the Vietnamese leadership, ultimately he will need the cooperation of his peers to effectively tackle the problem."

Duc, the elderly anti-corruption crusader, said that she and many other grassroots organizations are looking forward to seeing government pledges become concrete actions.

"I don't mind waiting for another five years," Duc said. "The thing is I'm not sure if I can survive until then."

"The bottom line is I hope that whatever the party and the government do will be in line with the people's will."

Confidence instilled

Nguyen Tan Dung was confirmed for another term as Prime Minister by 94 percent of the National Assembly on Tuesday. Dung will propose a fresh cabinet lineup to be ratified by the Assembly next week.

"That the PM was re-appointed does signal the leadership's confidence in him.  He had done well in the past," said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia specialist at the National War College in Washington. "If they had no confidence in him, the current crisis would have been the perfect excuse to retire him. But he has to be given significant latitude and the leadership has to make this a top priority.  They risk losing all of the economic gains of the past few years, and further deepening the rural-urban divide."

Le Dang Doanh, an independent Vietnamese economist, said the new cabinet will have to be able to address all the economic woes that their predecessors had failed to tackle.

"An across-the-board restructuring of the economy is the sine qua non," Doanh said, noting that the interests of both public and private firms continue to conspicuously sway policymaking.

"Golf courses or hydropower projects continue to sprout up in the country with profits accruing mainly for a few interested parties," Doanh said. "That's a major source of concern."

Future hopes

The National Assembly will wrap up its session on August 6 after ratifying a cabinet reshuffle. Nguyen Sinh Hung, a former deputy PM, was named the new house speaker on July 23.

A series of negative votes last year suggest that the top legislative body is growing more assertive and willing to challenge government thinking, according to analysts who hope to see the momentum continue.

"The National Assembly has really surprised the party leadership on a number of occasions.  They seem to represent the people quite well when it comes to questioning circumspect personnel, policies and projects chosen by the [Party]," Abuza said. "So yes, I expect that the [legislature] will only continue to put more pressure on the leadership to be more accountable, transparent, and willing to govern by the rule of law."

Malesky pointed out that a lot of the activity in the query sessions and legislative sessions is dependent on decisions made by the house speaker and the National Assembly Standing Committee. 

"Through their ability to control the agenda and order of questions, they can exert a strong influence on what happens. We don't have a lot of experience with the current [house] leadership, so how this session will work is still an open question," Malesky said. 

"Given the precedent that was set in the last [legislature] and the major economic decisions facing the country, I believe that if they are allowed, many of the delegates will be engaged and ready to assert themselves."

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