Vietnam confidence vote a litmus test for lawmakers

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General view of the opening ceremony of the one-month-long summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on May 20. Vietnam is entering unchartered political waters with the upcoming confidence vote in the nation's top leadership, and the process is also likely to be a vote of confidence in the National Assembly, analysts say. PHOTO: AFP

Vietnam is entering uncharted political waters with the upcoming confidence vote in the nation's top leadership, and the process is also likely to be a vote of confidence in the National Assembly as far as the public is concerned, observers say.

For the lawmakers who will exercise the unprecedented vote, it is an opportunity to regain public trust that has been undermined by a floundering economy and what is seen as a parliament that has lost its steam. 

Lawmakers themselves said that given the growing challenges facing the country, the people's confidence in the government and the legislature would continue to wane if all the leaders facing the confidence vote gain high approval rating. The biannual session of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, opened Monday (May 20).

A seasoned legislator even said he was "deeply concerned" about the final outcome of the votes, which could be compromised by the entrenched network of vested interests in Vietnam.

"The smaller interests of those who benefit from the status quo could trump over national interest and influence the votes of the lawmakers," said Duong Trung Quoc, a legislator who has served three parliamentary terms in a row.

"The most challenging test of will is lying ahead for the National Assembly," Quoc told Vietweek.

In its Fall session last November, the National Assembly passed a resolution that would enable lawmakers, starting this year, to cast a vote of confidence in the country's 49 top officials - including the Prime Minister and the President - on an annual basis.

Officials who poll less than one third of the 500-member legislature will face another vote of no confidence which can lead to their dismissal. Those who do not win more than 50 percent of the vote for two consecutive years will also face dismissal or be asked to resign.

The vote is scheduled to take place on June 11 and the outcome announced the same day. It takes place against the backdrop of public unhappiness with an economic slump that has continued to punish the grassroots and pushed thousands of companies across the country into closure and bankruptcy.

Analysts say the vote is a landmark event in the development of political institutions in the country, one that formally acknowledges the National Assembly's constitutional mandate to supervise and dismiss top state and government officials.

But the motion has also raised concerns among analysts and insiders who are not sure if the National Assembly deputies, 90 percent of whom are Party members, would be able to cast their vote according to their conscience.

"I think the key question is whether or not the Party gives it members who are also National Assembly members the right to judge top leaders fairly," a foreign diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

In Vietnam, it is the Party Central Committee a powerful grouping of 175 senior Party members and its decision-making body Politburo, that have the final say in the appointment or dismissal of officials at the rank of deputy minister and above. If these Party bodies do not endorse such moves, it would be difficult for the National Assembly to exercise its will.

"It is just impossible for a Party member not to toe the Party line," said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, an outspoken lawmaker who retired last year. Thuyet is also a Party member.

Vietnam's national legislature had won public kudos in a historic move in July 2010, when it voted against a government plan to construct a US$56 billion express railway route that would have run from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The instance boosted public standing of the Assembly, once seen as a rubber stamp, and it was seen as showing signs of assertiveness and willingness to challenge the government, exercising the parliament's oversight function.

But with nearly two-thirds of the new parliament, which took office in July 2011, made up of new faces, critics have said the body has been losing steam as it is short of deputies with the right amount of experience to participate in forthright deliberations that show knowledge and interest in issues.

There have been some glimpses of hope, however.

In its Fall session, Quoc, the lawmaker, raised the issue of a "resignation culture" with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who for the first time apologized to the deputies for widespread corruption and inefficiencies as well as the financial debacles at the cosseted state-run enterprises.

On the eve of the opening of the ongoing parliamentary session, the nation's leadership have expressed concerns about the fairness and objectivity of the confidence vote. Besides pledging strict monitoring of the confidence vote, the leaders urged lawmakers to act in the people's interest instead of thinking about their own positions when they cast their ballots.

"Vietnam is in truly uncharted waters and we will know the significance of the confidence vote when we observe the manner in which it is conducted," said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert with the City University of Hong Kong.

As of press time, it was not clear whether the votes would be cast anonymously or openly.

Lawmaker Quoc said he was personally "puzzled" ahead of the confidence vote. He said he had read through all the reports submitted by the officials facing the motion on their work performance, adherence to the law, ethics and lifestyle.

"They were all pretty impressive," Quoc said.

Given that Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong has admitted the failure to tackle rampant corruption and the degradation in morals and lifestyle among Party members, Quoc said he and his counterparts are grappling with a vexing question: What are the real problems of the country that need to be addressed?

"I'm really confused and not sure how to cast my own vote," Quoc said. "The people are watching us and winning back declining public trust is always a tall order."

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