Jury out as Da Nang's populist leader takes on "tough' anti-corruption task

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Called a "˜dictator' for his toughness as city leader, Nguyen Ba Thanh takes over a resurrected central agency that will advise the Party on anti-corruption policy

This picture taken on April 24, 2012 shows extension works underway at the Tien Sa Port in the central coastal city of Da Nang.  The Vietnam Provincial Competitiveness Index has consistently seen Da Nang at or near the top since 2005, well above both HCMC and Hanoi. Obviously, Nguyen Ba Thanh, the Da Nang leader, is credited with steering the central economic hub toward such accomplishments.

The founding prime minister of Singapore might have found it interesting that in neighboring Vietnam his name was used several years ago to describe a charismatic Vietnamese politician.

"The nearest Vietnam has to a Lee Kuan Yew" was how the international media referred to Nguyen Ba Thanh, the Da Nang leader, who has been in the limelight for his ambitious plans to make the central city a new Singapore.

But while Da Nang still has quite a long way to go and his successor will soon take over as city leader, Thanh is set to move to the national stage.

In yet another move to beef up the anti-graft drive, the Party has revived its Interior Commission which was merged with the Party Office in 2007, and appointed Thanh its chief.

The agency is once again tasked with advising the Party on major policies related to anti-corruption and high-ranking personnel. There is also a Central Steering Committee for Fighting and Preventing Corruption that was recently placed under the Party's control after earlier being under the government and headed by the prime minister.

The appointment sparked off a frenzy among netizens, going viral within a few minutes of it being made public. It was all over Vietnamese blogs and forums and grabbed newspaper headlines the next day. It even overshadowed the appointment of Vuong Dinh Hue, the incumbent finance minister, as head of the Party's Economic Commission the same day.

Analysts have raised two important questions: why did the posting attract such unprecedented public attention? And will millions of ordinary Vietnamese, disenchanted with government platitudes about the rampant corruption, buy into this latest move in the anti-graft campaign?

There is a third, possibly more important, question: What does he bring to the table?

"Thanh appears to have a strong and forceful personality," Nguyen Quang A, an independent analyst who used to head the Institute for Development Studies, a now-defunct think tank, said.

"I think the new post would give him plenty of scope to prove that he's the right pick," he told Vietweek.

A few years ago Thanh initiated a campaign to spruce up the city's image by weeding out drug addicts, criminals, and beggars, and eliminating illiteracy and poverty.

"Da Nang has changed at lightning speed," a well-known Vietnamese-American singer said after a visit to the city.

Thanh is also considered a man of action. When he visited a maternity hospital and found the toilet there was just a hole in the ground, he castigated the hospital brass and ordered them to immediately install proper toilets.

"Imagine one day if your wives or loved ones get pregnant and have to use these toilets. Would you accept that?" he asked the hospital management.

He has fired ward leaders on the spot when he found they were at fault, and local leaders and officials have said they are "nervous" before any meeting with him. His critics have called him a "dictator."

Thanh regularly held mass public meetings with husbands committing domestic violence, juvenile delinquents, and disaffected people who lost lands to public projects.

He was known to address their concerns immediately and, where not possible, to order authorities to make a commitment to follow up.

Analysts said a major challenge for Thanh in the new job is to become a credible anti-corruption champion, a trusted political figure who can push things and is not afraid of enforcing anti-corruption legislation based on evidence and not who the person is.

"Thanh is known as a fence-breaker in Da Nang, he will now need to prove that he can also break fences on anti-corruption at the central level," Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam, said.

Clearly the Party is hoping he can bring the same decisiveness to the new job.

Holy land

People in Da Nang seem to be unhappy with the appointment and fearful of a future without Thanh.

"Everybody will miss him so much," Nguyen Thi Hien, a local, said.

"He is one of just a few good leaders who dare to speak for the people, do whatever it takes for the sake of the people, and are ready to accept responsibility for their actions," she said.

Thanh has been Da Nang's leader since 2003. He is also a native of the city, which broke away from Quang Nam Province in 1997 to become a centrally administered city like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

His supporters consider him a magnetic leader who, using his platform in the central economic hub, has espoused populist policies.

But his critics dismiss him as a tyrant besieged by a raft of corruption allegations. Thanh has also drawn flak for some controversial policies on migration and education.

He is a darling of foreign investors for being at the forefront of cutting red tape and ushering in a more business-friendly environment than elsewhere in the country.

"I have long respected Nguyen Ba Thanh for his decisive and visionary leadership style that has transformed Da Nang in the last 15 years from a small and unsophisticated village to one of the most dynamic urban areas in Vietnam, if not Southeast Asia as a whole," said Peter Ryder, chief executive officer of Indochina Capital, which has invested around US$300 million to develop beachfront properties and a downtown high-rise building.

"He deserves a large amount of the credit for this transformation."

Called a "˜dictator' for his toughness as Da Nang City leader, Nguyen Ba Thanh is set to move to the national stage, taking over a resurrected central agency that will advise the Party on anti-corruption policy

The Vietnam Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI), based on a survey of around 7,000 Vietnamese and 2,000 foreign companies, has consistently seen Da Nang at or near the top since 2005, well above both HCMC and Hanoi.

Obviously, Thanh is credited with steering Da Nang toward such accomplishments.

"Thanh's most impressive characteristics are his vision, innovation, and diligence," Edmund Malesky, the PCI's lead researcher, said.

"He imagined what Da Nang could be and then went about channeling resources and policies to move it along that trajectory.

"It is not quite there yet, but anyone who visits Da Nang knows that it is a very different place from a decade ago."

While foreign investors lament about superfluous formalities, widespread corruption, the lack of a high-caliber workforce, and a crumbling infrastructure in Vietnam, Da Nang has appeared to be an exception.

The city, with a population of around 900,000, has focused on developing the technology industry while also capitalizing on its natural beauty to boost tourism and services.

But what has really made Thanh a beloved leader is his down-to-earth nature.    

He could be seen speaking to street hawkers to find out if they made ends meet, visiting a flood-prone district to inspect the drainage system, meeting people at his home after work to listen to their complaints.

In many televised city legislature meetings, he would grill city leaders on bread-and-butter issues, lambasting them for their handling of the issues if they were at fault.

"The biggest accomplishment for Da Nang in the past 15 years is getting people's trust," Thanh said at a meeting last February with some 4,000 city officials.

"We can be proud of what we have achieved, which has created a much more appealing and charming Da Nang."

"˜Bottom out'

Thanh's appointment comes at the time when Vietnam still ranks low in global corruption surveys. Last year it slipped further in the Corruption Perception Index, ranking 123 out of 176 nations surveyed, according to the Berlin-based Transparency International.

Meanwhile, the economic meltdown continues to punish the poor and middle class. The top leadership has admitted that public trust in the Party is on the wane with President Truong Tan Sang even saying he felt "ashamed" of this.

Practices of nepotism and relationships remain widespread.

The most recent Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) found that less than a quarter of Vietnamese citizens think connections are not important to get a job in the public sector. A full 50 percent thought otherwise.

PAPI studies also suggest that bribes are paid for government jobs.

"I'm going to take on a very tough task," Thanh said after a meeting with Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong about his new job. "I [will] do my best."

Analysts and insiders are not too sure if Thanh would be able to inject new life into the fight against corruption. He would not be able to resolve corruption on his own, they say.

"Thanh's success will require a shift in thinking among top leaders," A, the former think-tank head, said.

Truong Vinh Trong, a former deputy prime minister who headed the Party's Interior Commission before it was disbanded, declined to comment on Thanh.

"All I can say is that [picking Thanh] was the decision of the Party. Let us wait and see."

The analysts echoed Trong, saying time is needed to gauge Thanh's performance. But they also warned that people should not be overly optimistic and place too much hope in an individual.

"Such high hopes in him [Thanh] is just indicative of the fact that public trust in the leadership has bottomed out," A said.

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