Vietnam News

Is Vietnam’s anti-corruption drive a disguised power grab ?

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Concerns grow that President To Lam may become Putin-style dictator

Vietnam’s new president, To Lam, made his de facto diplomatic debut in June when he oversaw official events during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the country.

Communist Party General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s paramount leader, attended the summit with Putin but remained seated throughout. Putin showed concern for the 80-year-old party chief, who has held the post since 2011, appearing to confirm long-rumored worries about Trong’s deteriorating health. During Putin’s visit, it was To Lam who led talks with the Russian leader.To Lam, who took office in May, rose to the presidency on the heels of Trong’s vigorous anti-corruption campaign, which has profoundly shifted the country’s political landscape and resulted in the dismissal of several top government officials.Former President Vo Van Thuong was forced to step down in March, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who was effectively sacked in January of the previous year. In a country known for its stable, party-controlled political system, it was unusual for two presidents, the No. 2 officials in the party, to be forced out in succession in just over a year.Before Phuc’s resignation, two deputy prime ministers lost their jobs. Following Thuong’s departure, Vuong Dinh Hue, the fourth-ranked chairman of the National Assembly, and Truong Thi Mai, the fifth-ranked member of the Party Central Committee’s Secretariat, were also dismissed.

Vietnam began moving toward a market economy in 1986, with the start of its Doi Moi economic reforms. As the country’s economy took off, fueled by development aid and direct investments from around the world, corruption also became rampant.

An executive with a Japanese company recalled being asked for bribes totaling 10% of sales a dozen or so years ago to obtain the permits needed to set up a local subsidiary. The executive describes the country’s bribery culture as “less about personal enrichment and more about customary practices among low-paid bureaucrats to share the gains among themselves — something that won’t disappear easily.”

Trong, who became party general-secretary in 2011, declared a relentless fight against corruption with “no off-limits or exceptions.” In 2013, he transferred the anti-corruption committee from the government to the party and appointed himself chairman.

To Lam served as public security minister for eight years before assuming his current post, spearheading investigations and arrests as part of the anti-graft crackdown.

In Vietnam, corruption is defined broadly. Acts of corruption, as defined by the law, encompass not only bribery and embezzlement but also “the crime of causing significant damage due to lack of responsibility.” Sanctioning loss-making projects or failing to control subordinates’ misconduct can also be considered corruption. This expansive definition creates fertile ground for using anti-corruption measures as tools in power struggles.

The Communist Party says that the aim of eradicating corruption is to establish a clean and resilient political system, and that anti-corruption campaigns are not a result of power struggles within the party. However, the reality is more complex. Anti-graft drives often serve two purposes: to enhance governance and to influence power dynamics. These objectives are often hard to disentangle, yet doing so is crucial to understand which way the political balance is tilting.

“Everyone has some skeletons in the closet,” remarked Futaba Ishizuka, head of the governance studies group at the Japan External Trade Organization’s (JETRO) Institute of Developing Economies. “The question is whose closets you search.” Ishizuka said the recent series of high-profile arrests indicate a significant shift from anti-corruption toward power struggles.

The political upheaval at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 that led to the dismissal of Phuc and two deputy prime ministers was linked to COVID-related scandals in 2020 and 2021. Following more than a year of investigation, over 140 people, including senior officials, were arrested and prosecuted. This culminated in disciplinary actions against top officials for failing to fulfill their supervisory duties.

While the removal of a state president was surprising, the action was taken in accordance with due process. By contrast, the dismissals of party leaders Thuong, Hue and Mai starting in March took on a different character. They were dismissed for “party rule violations,” which seemed to stem from their supervisory roles regarding corruption among subordinates and close associates. But their scandals became public knowledge before the party officially acknowledged them, indicating a growing aggressiveness on the part of anti-corruption regulators.

Ishizuka said the three weeks when supreme leader Trong was absent from public view from late December to early this year is key to understanding the change in the anti-corruption campaign.

Trong suffered a stroke in 2019 and has been plagued by health problems. After a meeting with Kazuo Shii, who was then head of the Japanese Communist Party, in Hanoi at the end of 2023, Trong disappeared from public view. The dearth of information about his whereabouts led to rumors of his death.

But it was a false alarm: Trong attended a parliament session in mid-January. Yet it appears he has handed over the reins of the anti-corruption campaign to To Lam, who then escalated the power struggle, according to Ishizuka.

Like Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None,” all potential contenders for Trong’s post have fallen from grace, including Hue, Mai and even Thuong, a 53-year-old confidant of Trong. The exception is To Lam, who ranked only ninth in the party hierarchy at the start of the current Politburo in 2021 but has now ascended to the presidency.

Even without health concerns, the 80-year-old Trong is certain to retire at the next party congress in January 2026. Trong extended his term as general-secretary in 2021 beyond the maximum two five-year terms stipulated by party rules. To Lam has emerged as Trong’s most likely successor.

What will To Lam do once he achieves supreme power?

In China, the collective leadership introduced to limit the excesses of the Mao Zedong era has evolved into one-man rule under President Xi Jinping, who has solidified his position as the unchallenged leader through anti-corruption campaigns. Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin has consolidated a “personal dictatorship” following the country’s failure to democratize.

To Lam may also be aiming to concentrate power in his own hands. He appears to be undermining Vietnam’s traditional collective leadership through power struggles that he has seemingly fueled under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns.

In Vietnam, the Communist Party has never had a former public security official as party general-secretary, but To Lam is already laying the groundwork for his bid for the top post.

After becoming president, To Lam picked Luong Tam Quang, a former deputy minister of public security, as his successor and appointed another former deputy, Nguyen Duy Ngoc, as chief of the Party Central Committee Office. Both of his proteges hail from his native province of Hung Yen in the north. The increasing influence of the public security faction raises concerns over whether the country is headed toward dictatorship.

“Even for Vietnam researchers, the relationship between Trong and To Lam is a mystery,” said Nobukatsu Imamura, chief researcher at Sekai Seikei Chosakai, a Tokyo think tank.

Many experts say it is unclear whether To Lam is indeed Trong’s chosen successor or if Trong condones the change in the collective leadership setup. Another significant question is whether Trong still holds the reins of the party.

Is the desire for a strong leader — a widespread trend in the Global South — pushing Vietnam toward a historic turning point? The country, whose political stability has attracted foreign investment, may face a tumultuous path leading up to the next party congress in a year and a half.

By Toru Takahashi – Nikkei Asia – July 8, 2024

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