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‘Blazing furnace’ : Vietnamese president ousted in anti-corruption cleanout

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Vietnam is in the midst of an unprecedented political shake-up after President Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the biggest scalp of an anti-corruption drive that has swept up hundreds of officials from the ruling Communist Party.

Phuc, 68, who had held the position since 2021 and was prime minister for the preceding six years, quit on Tuesday after being held responsible for COVID-related graft offences committed by government figures including ministers.

The role of the president is largely ceremonial in Vietnam but Phuc’s exit carries great significance because he is the first member of the four pillars of leadership – Communist Party general secretary, prime minister, president and chair of the national assembly – to resign from his post.

The most powerful is the party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, who was last year re-elected by the decision-making central committee for a rare third, five-year term, and has led a wide-reaching anti-corruption crackdown.

Dubbed the “blazing furnace”, the cleanout has in recent years brought down hundreds of officials within the party, business community and the military and has gathered pace in response to illegal pandemic-era bribery schemes, including one in which virus test kits were sold to hospitals at wildly inflated prices and another in connection with repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens.

The COVID-19 scandals last year triggered a surge of arrests and sackings, including of the health minister and the mayor of Hanoi, and this month also led to the departures of two of the country’s four deputy prime ministers, who had oversight for health and foreign affairs respectively.

Phuc, who as prime minister was the first South-east Asian leader to travel to Washington to meet then-president Donald Trump in 2017, was deemed culpable of the “wrongdoings and shortcomings” of ministers beneath him, according to a statement from the Communist Party Central Committee reported by state media.

“Fully being aware of his responsibilities before the party and people, he submitted an application to resign from his assigned positions, quit his job and retire,” the statement said.

Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the Phuc’s resignation reflected Trong’s intention to widen the circle of liability for the lining of pockets, but also indicated a power struggle may have been another factor.

“The party is trying to hold senior officials accountable for what they are doing but also for what their family members or their subordinates are doing. So if corruption scandals are happening under their watch, they are being held accountable for such incidents and they are encouraged to resign,” he said.

“I think another reason [for his removal] may be political infighting. Some politicians may benefit from his departure, so they also want to remove him to clear the path to further promotion. Phuc had been seen as an obstacle for further promotion, especially the top job, the general secretary position, because Mr Trong is likely to step down in 2026.”

There are competing views among analysts about whether turnover of personnel in the top echelons of government will lead to a perception of instability. Vietnam’s economy is one of the best performing in the region coming out of the pandemic.

Hiep believes the impact will be minimal in a one-party state where policy direction is set by the now 16-person politburo, of which Phuc was just one member.

The changes do create a level of uncertainty, though, according to Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of NSW.

“On the economic side Vietnam is going gangbusters,” he said. “The way this has been dragged out – the question is whether the minister you’re dealing with today is going to be in office tomorrow.”

There have also been questions raised about what, if any, implications developments in Hanoi could have on foreign policy. Thayer, however, said he saw no reason why it would budge from maintaining its stated neutrality.

“You cannot lean towards the United States and antagonise China,” he said. “I see no lurching one way or the other.”

By Chris Barrett – The Sydney Morning Herald with Reuters – January 18, 2023

‘Blazing furnace’ : Vietnamese president ousted in anti-corruption cleanout
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