Economic reform agenda reflected in cabinet move

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2002, 12:00am

The National Assembly was expected yesterday to formally approve a new cabinet, further cementing the agenda of the Communist Party's top leaders.

No substantial changes are expected, reflecting a view among some observers that this is a routine reshuffle and that the government has achieved a level of stability.

'These guys have an agenda. They own it and they're implementing it,' said the country head of the World Bank, Andrew Steer.

The ruling Communist Party is pursuing a platform of modernisation and industrialisation for Vietnam and the new cabinet will reflect that.

Trade Minister Vu Khoan, who helped steer a landmark trade deal with the United States last year and negotiated a land border agreement with China, is expected to move up to become a deputy prime minister, with a portfolio of ministries under him including trade and foreign affairs.

He will continue to take a key role in Vietnam's economic integration, particularly as it seeks membership of the World Trade Organisation.

His predecessor, Truong Dinh Tuyen, will return to replace him.

Although the government plans to eventually reduce the number of ministries, the creation of three new ministries is expected, bringing the number to 19.

The new ministries will be post and telecommunications, natural resources and environment, and interior.

'The Interior Ministry is likely to become very important in coming years and is being created to combine Vietnam's resources to combat terrorism,' said Professor Carl Thayer, Vietnam analyst at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Some see the new cabinet as a consolidation of power by the general secretary of the Communist Party, Nong Duc Manh, who was appointed last year, and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai. Mr Khai and President Tran Duc Luong were reappointed in uncontested ballots as the National Assembly began a new five-year term last month.

The other appointments would already have been similarly decided by the Communist Party's Central Committee, and although members of the National Assembly are increasingly showing a willingness to engage in some debate, they are unlikely to challenge any of the nominees for cabinet posts.

Although there was debate over the new ministries, the parliament is also unlikely to challenge their creation. Some had argued that the new ministries would overlap with existing ones, while others worried that the reorganisation would mean more bureaucracy even as the country pursues administrative streamlining.

Observers will be watching the new line-up for signs of a continuing trend of younger, better educated and more reform-minded people in positions of power. But reform in Vietnam largely means reform of economic and administrative machinery.

There has been a move away from the Soviet-style central power system to a greater emphasis on ministerial responsibility. Lawmakers can now call no-confidence votes in parliament.

Once little more than a rubber stamp for the Communist Party, the National Assembly has been gaining independence recently, rejecting cabinet nominations or sending back bills prepared by the government.

But while the reform agenda does include the official Grassroots Democracy programme, which allows some local participation, it in no way contains moves towards a multi-party democracy, or a free press.

Mr Manh and his team must still placate the hardliners in the party who fear loss of power and insist on suppressing dissent but may be willing to tolerate - and even support - Vietnam's opening up in other areas.

'It's not so much whether they're for or against engagement, but whether the pace should be slow, or very slow,' said one Western diplomat.

There is also the question of whether Vietnam has the resources needed to continue the process of opening up its economy, reforming its legal and financial sectors, and continuing the work of reducing poverty in a way which addresses the growing gap between people in the cities and the largely rural population.