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Vietnam prime minister warned in confidence vote

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnamese lawmakers handed the prime minister a grudging mandate in the country's first ever confidence vote, a ballot seen as a small step toward a more pluralistic style of governance in the one-party, Communist nation.

Premier Nguyen Tan Dung is under pressure because of his mishandling of the economy, previously one of Asia's best performing but now mired in massive levels of bad debt and a lackluster investment climate. Last year, he survived a leadership challenge at a meeting of top party leaders.

Dung and 46 other ministers and top state officials faced the vote by members of the national assembly, the first in what will be an annual process aimed at showing an increasingly assertive public that its leaders are more responsive to their demands. Voting in what was a secret ballot took place on Monday. Results were announced Tuesday.

Given more than 90 percent of the 498 members of the assembly are Communist Party cardholders, no one expected any of the officials to get the kind of poor showing that could trigger resignations.

Still, more than 30 percent gave Dung a “low confidence” vote, a clear sign of the divisions within the party over his second-term in office, due to end in 2016. Analysts said this showing by itself wouldn't impact his position, but could be used by rivals in internal negotiations over his future.

Assembly members got to vote on whether they had “high confidence,” “confidence” or “low confidence” in the officials. The rules of the secret ballot state that officials with more than a 60 percent “low confidence vote” might have to resign.

Dung received 160 “low confidence” votes out of 492 ballots, the third highest number of negative votes cast. President Truong Tan Sang, the man widely thought to be his main political challenger behind the tightly closed doors of party meetings, got just 28 negative votes.

The central bank governor received 209 “low confidence” marks, presumably a reflection of his handling of the economy. The education minister got 177. Aside from the economy, concern over the poor standard of schools and universities is a major public concern.

“This really does show that the assembly delegates are doing their job,” said Edmund Malesky, a Vietnam expert at Duke University in the United States. “There definitely appears to some sort of responsiveness to constituencies. The two people associated with economic performance had a lower percentage of confidence votes than the mean.”

National assembly deputy Duong Trung Quoc said the voting reflected “the reality of life and pressing issues and ... partly reflect the people's grievances.”

The structural problems plaguing the economy and the increasing criticism and scrutiny of the party over the Internet have triggered calls for reforms by some in the party. While still arresting dissidents, it is revising the constitution, and will possibly water down language over the state's role in the economy.

Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at Hong Kong's City University, said the ballot showed “Vietnam was charting its own course,” albeit slowly. He asserted that a similar event wouldn't happen in China, Vietnam's much larger, Communist neighbor.

“Perhaps by necessity it is going for a brand of politics that has many of the trappings of a semi-accountable system,” he said. “For a party that has a tradition of assuming its leaders were pristine and of outstanding caliber, it is a change of tune.”

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