Vietnam leaders pass first, historic confidence vote

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Vietnam's top officials, including the prime minister, secured enough support from the parliament during the country's first ever confidence vote, which analyst said suggests the political system is evolving in a progressive manner.

A total of 492 members of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, cast their ballots anonymously Monday and the results were revealed Tuesday.

The lawmakers voted on whether they had "high confidence," ''confidence" or "low confidence" in the nation's top officials.

Officials who receive low confidence votes from two-thirds of the house will face another vote of no confidence which is likely to lead to their dismissal. Those who fail to win more than 50 percent of the confidence vote for two years in a row will also face dismissal or be asked to resign.


But all 47 officials subject to the landmark motion, including the prime minister and the president, won the 50 percent support needed.


Of the officials who scored poorly in what will be an annual process, State Bank Governor Nguyen Van Binh received 209 "low confidence" votes out of 491 ballots, the highest number of negative votes cast.

Binh was followed by Education Minister Pham Vu Luan, who received 177 "low confidence" marks out of 492 ballots, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who scored 160 out of 492.

Analysts say Binh's poor showing reflects concerns about ongoing problems in the banking sector that has been hamstrung by bad debts. The central bank estimated Vietnam's bad debts at 7.8 percent of outstanding loans at the end of last year.


At the National Assembly's fall session, PM Nguyen Tan Dung apologized to the deputies for the first time for widespread corruption and inefficiency, as well as financial debacles of the cosseted state-run enterprises.

Vice house speaker Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who was elected to the powerful Politburo last month, won the most praise from her  felow assembly members, receiving 372 high confidence votes and only 14 votes of low confidence. 

The confidence vote took place against the backdrop of public unhappiness with an economic slump that has continued to punish the average people and pushed thousands of companies across the country out of business and into bankruptcy. Vietnam's economy, once seen as a rising tiger within the region, recorded an economic growth rate of 5.03 percent last year, the lowest this 13 years.


Though house speaker Nguyen Sinh Hung admitted "inevitable shortcomings" in the first-ever confidence vote, he said by and large its results reflected the country's socio-economic status quo.


"The confidence vote reveals that concerns over handling the economy within the Vietnam Communist Party that surfaced in October last year are reflected among the deputies to the National Assembly," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the University of New South Wales.


Analysts said while the vote results themselves were perhaps not surprising, the publicizing of the results was important. The motion also demonstrated that though Vietnam faces fundamental constraints, its political system is evolving in an encouraging, if still uncertain, manner.


"It's a remarkable development," said Jonathan London, an expert on Vietnam with the City University of Hong Kong.  "The confidence vote is new and an equivalent process would be unthinkable in China," London told Thanh Nien News.


A foreign diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity also said the results of the confidence vote were more "real" than she had expected it to be.


"I had expected all the top do well, as is usually the case when the National Assembly votes for top leaders," she said.


On the eve of the motion, concerns were expressed by analysts and insiders who were unsure if the National Assembly deputies 90 percent of whom are Party members would be able to vote according to their conscience.


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


Critics say with nearly two-thirds of the new parliament, which took office in July 2011, being new members, the legislative 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 in key issues.


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, for its willingness to challenge the government and exercise the parliament's oversight function.


Analysts say the results of the first-ever confidence vote represents a landmark event in Vietnamese history and its results suggest that lawmakers posses some freedom of choice.


"This freedom of choice, while still at a very nascent stage, could bring about some change in the Vietnamese political system in the long term," the anonymous diplomat said.


While one confidence vote is not designed to determine a minister's fate, the results of the confidence vote also suggest that there will be ministerial changes before the current term of office expires in 2016, analysts said.


"The confidence vote reveals that concerns in the Party and the National Assembly over the handling of the economy are likely to continue," Thayer said.

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