Vietnam's first confidence vote puts cabinet on notice

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Introduction of real accountability into governance a welcome development, analysts say


Men ride
motorcycles past the State Bank of Vietnam building in Hanoi on June 11. Of the officials who scored poorly in Vietnam's first-ever confidence vote, State Bank Governor Nguyen Van Binh received 209 "˜low confidence' votes out of 491, the highest number of negative votes cast. The results of the country's historic motion show that mismanagement of the economy is at the core of public dissatisfaction, analysts say. Photo: Reuters


The results of Vietnam's first-ever confidence vote by parliamentarians on senior government officials show that mismanagement of the economy is at the core of public dissatisfaction, analysts say.

They add that the results also indicate that underperforming cabinet members will be held accountable if they fail to push through bold reforms in the near future.

A total of 492 members of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, cast their votes anonymously last Monday and the results were revealed a day later.

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 confidence vote, failure in which could 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, the highest number of negative votes cast.

Binh was followed by Education Minister Pham Vu Luan, who received 177 "low confidence" votes out of 492, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who scored 160 out of 492, and Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, who received 146 out of 482.

Analysts say the vote was a "very positive" development that would go a long way toward improving the government's accountability and further legitimizing the legislature's oversight function vis-à-vis the executive. It also is very important that the deputies expressed "real" concern over core economic issues, they say.

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"As the Vietnamese economy has struggled to regain its dynamism, a share of delegates appear to be willing to identify the leaders they deem to be most responsible," said Edmund Malesky, a Vietnam analyst at Duke University in the US.

The poor showing of central bank governor Binh reflects concerns about ongoing problems in the banking sector that has been hamstrung by bad debts. The central bank estimated Vietnam's bad debt at 6 percent of outstanding loans as of this March.

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 in the region, recorded an economic growth rate of 5.03 percent last year, the lowest in 13 years.

Vice house speaker Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, who was elected to the Party's decision-making body -- the Politburo -- last month, won the most praise from fellow parliamentarians, receiving 372 "high confidence" votes and only 14 "low confidence" ones.

Several analysts say the controversial nature of some of the portfolios, such as banking, education and public health, may account for the low vote the respective ministers received.

But it does not account for the relatively poor showing of all but three ministers, they say.

"The sectors that received negative votes are definitely the ones that affect people's lives and therefore they will be very critical and observant of their performance," said Roberto Herrera-Lim, Asia Director of the New York-based Eurasia Group.

House speaker Nguyen Sinh Hung said the low confidence votes should be seen as a "higher demand" from the lawmakers that concerned cabinet members exhibit "higher responsibility" and "perform better" in pulling the country through myriad challenges.

Results of the confidence vote will have an effect on future performance of the top officials, even if it does not affect their immediate career paths, observers say.

They say the officials now know that if they do not perform well, they will be penalized severely, and at the very least, reprimanded. This is better than a process where there is no feedback.

The message that lawmakers have rammed home through the historic vote is clear it will not be business as usual from now on, in terms of performance and accountability.

With nearly half the cabinet members receiving low confidence votes, lawmakers "are reflecting society-wide frustration over the slow pace of socio-economic reforms," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

 "If the status quo is maintained, it is likely Vietnam's development will be hostage to underperforming ministers," Thayer said.

"We may have to wait until next year to see if the axe will fall on ministers who received the highest low confidence votes."

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