Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is seen congratulating the new Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc congratulates the new Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong after his re-election during the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) 13th National Congress in Hanoi on 31 January, 2021. (Photo: Vietnam News Agency / AFP)

Vietnam’s New Government Election: The Sooner the Better?

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There is little reason for the Community Party of Vietnam to repeat its “fast track” procedure to get a new government in place. The Party’s reputation is best served by its playing by the rules.

The 14th National Assembly of Vietnam will convene its final session today. It will end two weeks later, on 7 April. The most important item on the session’s agenda is the election of key positions in the state apparatus, including the new National Assembly chair, the state president, and the prime minister. Some other key officeholders, including the vice president, the chief justice, the prosecutor general, vice-chairmen of the National Assembly, deputy prime ministers and other cabinet members, will also be elected. The “fast track” election process, which was also practised in 2016, will finalise Vietnam’s five-yearly national leadership transition initiated at the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) that concluded early last month.

However, to some observers, the above decision goes against the 2013 Constitution. Article 97 of the document stipulates that “the term of the government follows the term of the National Assembly”, and “at the expiration of the term of the National Assembly, the government shall remain in office until a new government is elected by the succeeding National Assembly”. Article 8 of the 2014 Law on Organization of the National Assembly also provides for such an election to be undertaken at the first session of the new National Assembly. As Vietnam’s 15th National Assembly will be elected on 23 May 2021, the election of the new government should be conducted at its first session in the June/July period.

This is the second time Vietnam has followed the “fast-track” election procedure. In 2016, after defeating former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a bitter power struggle at the Party’s 12th Congress to stay as general secretary for the second term, Mr Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters decided to shorten the transition period between the Party Congress and the election of the new government. They, therefore, came up with a plan to remove Mr Dung and his allies from key government positions as soon as possible. As a result, instead of waiting for the new government to be formed by the new National Assembly, they decided to have the old National Assembly install the new government in April 2016. They got around the constitutional rules by having the new National Assembly re-elect the same government three months later.

This time around, the running of the 13th Party Congress was orchestrated smoothly under the firm leadership of Mr Trong, and there is no clear reason for expediting the procedure again. The implied rationale, however, is that the Party wants to introduce a new government early to “consolidate” the state apparatus and to effectively lead the implementation of the country’s socio-economic development plans. 

This rationale does not appear to be backed by strong evidence and may even generate unintended consequences. On the one hand, while having the new government established in April may provide an earlier start to the implementation of the country’s socio-economic development plan, it will hardly make any difference. With Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instantly reminding his cabinet members to stay actively responsible until their last days of office, there is little evidence that setting up the new government in July instead of April will constrain the old government’s performance or improve that of the new government. Indeed, before 2016, Vietnam had always had the new government elected by the new National Assembly at least five months after the Party Congress, and the country still had its socio-economic development plans successfully implemented without any major problems. 

… the Party’s reputation, as well as its governance capacity, is better served by its commitment to play by the rules, not its willingness to bend them.

More importantly, going around the rules, even under the pretext of improving government performance, tends to undermine the CPV’s reputation. This decision, which came right after the 13th Party Congress’ re-election of General Secretary Trong to an unprecedented third term against the Party’s own rule that he can only hold two consecutive terms, will further reinforce the public perception that the Party is willing to bend the rules whenever it finds convenient. In the long run, this will undermine investors’ trust in the government’s ability to honour its legal commitments as well as the Party’s efforts to bolster the rule of law.

The CPV should therefore restore the practice of having the new National Assembly elect the new government. If the Party wants to shorten the transition period between the Party Congress and the election of the new government, it should come up with less controversial measures to do so. In the future, Vietnam should hold the National Assembly election in March instead of May, and then introduce the new government in April. In this regard, Vietnam should learn from neighbouring Laos’ experiences. Although Laos has a political system similar to Vietnam’s, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party managed to organize its 11th National Congress in January and have the 9th National Assembly election held in February, which allows them to introduce a new government in March. 

CPV politicians are known for their pragmatism as well as their ability to improvise to get around circumstantial challenges. The personnel arrangements made at the Party’s 13th Congress and its decision to install the new government earlier than usual in 2016 are cases in point. However, temporary fixes for short-term interests should not be regularised and prioritised over rules-based measures. After all, the Party’s reputation, as well as its governance capacity, is better served by its commitment to play by the rules, not its willingness to bend them.

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