Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Lessons of le Kha Phieu: Changing Rules in Vietnamese Politics

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Lessons of le Kha Phieu: Changing Rules in Vietnamese Politics

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the run-up to the Vietnam Communist Party's (VCP) Ninth Congress, in April 2001, General Secretary LE KHA PHIEU lost in his bid to be either re-elected for a full five-year term or, alternatively, be elected to serve out a five-year term and resign at a mid-term congress in 2003. The Central Committee's rejection of Phieu says a lot about the evolution of the Vietnamese political system.

In February 2001, with the economy stagnant, Phieu was under fierce attack. Following the conclusion of the first session of the Eleventh Plenum in February, press reports stated that Phien was "99 percent likely to lose his job". (1) A key decision by the Central Committee that no one over the age of 65 would be re-elected at the Congress in order to rejuvenate the leadership seemed to confirm that the 67-year-old Phieu was to be replaced. (2) Yet, Phieu launched a furious counter-attack and soon thereafter, exceptions for the mandatory retirement age were being made for "key cadres". (3) Capitalizing on the wave of violent demonstrations by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands in February 2001, (4) the General Secretary was able to convince the leadership that with such serious political unrest, the country was not ready for a leadership change. Playing on the leadership's overarching concern for stability, by the end of the second session of the Eleventh Plenum, it seemed that Phieu's job was secure and that he would finish a face-saving full five-year term. In mid-April, two-thirds of the Politburo voted to re-elect Phieu to serve until a midterm congress in 2003, but at the Twelfth Plenum on 17 April, the full Central Committee overturned the Politburo's decision (in itself a rare event) and voted to oust him.

What did Le Kha Phieu do wrong? Why did he not get re-elected to either a full five-year term, or even a face-saving completion of his five-year term? Is the era of the strongman at an end? Clearly, Phieu had made many mistakes. Years ago, leaders were not punished for poor performance or failed policies, nor were they reprimanded for abusing power. Senior leaders were autonomous and nearly immune from both public and intra-party scrutiny; this is no longer the case. In Phieu's case, however, it was not just self-inflicted wounds that ended his career. We have to look for changes within the Vietnamese political system itself. This is not a static system and the rules have changed.

This article will begin with an analysis of some of the systemic factors that played a role in Phieu's downfall, including his inherent political weaknesses, the growth of provincial power, and economic recession, before addressing Phieu's own mistakes, such as abuse of power, political corruption, and wanton ambition.

Systemic Factors

A Compromise Candidate in a Changing Political Environment

Le Kha Phieu was weak from the start. He began his tenure as General Secretary at mid-term after a protracted leadership dispute, and he was clearly selected through default. (5) He had no broad base of support, but was rather a compromise candidate. He was elected amidst political gridlock and a fierce power struggle that was crippling the Vietnamese leadership. Although the stalemate was partly based on ideology, much was the fault of a Vietnamese political system that strives to artificially create a balance in the system and inherently has a degree of gridlock built into it.

Even before the Eighth Congress, in June 1996, the leadership was mired in a political stalemate. None of the ruling troika, General Secretary Do Muoi, President Le Duc Anh, and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet was willing to voluntarily retire without concurrent moves by the other two. Doing so would have left their less politically skilled proteges weak and vulnerable. Thus, the ruling troika remained in place until the fall of 1998, when President Le Duc Anh and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet stepped down. …

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