First US-educated Politburo member could inject fresh life into Vietnam reforms: analysts

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Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan (R) and National Assembly vice chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan

The Vietnamese Communist Party has picked for the first time a US-educated government leader as a new member of the powerful Politburo, a move that analysts say should be well received in both the business and diplomatic communities. 

The appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan and vice house speaker Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan would increase the number of the members of the Politburo to 16 from the current 14, the Vietnam News Agency reported, citing a closing statement to a regular meeting of the Party Central Committee.

The Central Committee is a powerful grouping of 175 senior Party members, and the Politburo is the Party's decision-making body. The meeting, which opened May 2, was the 7th since the 11th Party Congress was inaugurated in the beginning of 2011. These meetings are usually one week to ten days long.

With Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong saying in his closing remarks that the reshuffle of the political system must go hand in hand with economic reforms, analysts consider the appointment a "positive" sign.

"It's encouraging that among various possibilities, the Party has elected two bright, capable, and experienced individuals to its highest echelon of authority," said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert with the City University of Hong Kong.

"Nhan and Ngan are perhaps particularly welcome in that both individuals have substantial experience on issues of real importance to Vietnam's people, such as education, social affairs, and foreign relations," London told Thanh Nien News.

US training

Deputy PM Nhan, 59, got his PhD in cybernetics from a university in former East Germany in 1979. Later, he got a master's degree in public administration from the University of Oregon in 1995 as a Fulbright scholar.

He was vice rector of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Polytechnique College before being appointed director of the Department of Science and Technology and then vice mayor of HCMC in 2001.

In 2006, the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, approved his appointment as the education minister. He was installed as deputy PM a year later, and also continued as education minister until 2010.

While serving as education minister, Nhan is credited with launching a campaign called "Say No to Negative Phenomena in Exams," dealing with the problems of cheating and corruption that have plagued Vietnam's education system for many years.

His appointment as a Politburo member takes place against the backdrop of public unhappiness with an economic slump. Vietnam,  once seen as an emerging Asian tiger, has been struggling with prolonged inflation, rampant corruption and a banking sector weakened by bad debts and slow credit growth.

Moody's Investors Service last September downgraded Vietnam's credit rating, citing weaknesses in its banks and economic woes.

Analysts say Nhan's appointment is a recognition that Vietnam's leadership needs new blood and new ideas to kickstart a new round of reforms. 

"It is certainly an advantage to have someone like Nhan, who is entirely at ease with foreigners, appointed to its highest post," London said.

"If nothing else, the business community and western governments or bilateral donors should be pleased by his selection," said Zach Abuza, a South East Asia analyst with the National War College in Washington.

But analysts also caution that prospective investors are looking for real changes in Vietnam's governance institutions, and will not be swayed by personnel changes.

The success or failure of any effort to revive investment will have more to do with whether or not there is substantial reform, rather than whether or not there is a familiar face in power, they say.


The addition of Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the vice house speaker, to the Politburo is significant because "women have been so under-represented at the highest echelons of Vietnamese politics," Abuza told Thanh Nien News.

Ngan and Tong Thi Phong, another vice house speaker, are the only two female members of the Politburo.

Ngan, 59, is a former social affairs minister credited with successfully managing the mass evacuation of around 10,000 Vietnamese guest workers in Libya when violence erupted in that country two years ago, news website VnExpresss reported Saturday.

Analysts also say Ngan commanded "considerable respect" in the field of social affairs when she was at the helm.

"Ngan displays commendably deep familiarity with many important social issues, such as poverty, vulnerability, and problems in the health system," said London, the Hong Kong-based expert.

"It is important that Vietnam address these issues with renewed energy, urgency, and competence and it can be hoped that Ngan's appointment will help in this regard."

Overall, analysts say these are positive appointments that send a strong message to both the business and diplomatic communities that Vietnam is ready to undertake serious reforms.

Furthermore, the people of Vietnam are also looking for real change and they want the Politburo to deliver,  the analysts add.

"Real change in Vietnam requires the active participation of all Vietnamese in the country's political and social life," London said.

"If the two appointments can facilitate movement in this direction Vietnam stands to benefit as does its relationship with the rest of the world."

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