In Vietnam, deep-rooted vested interests threaten to derail corruption crackdown

In a country where corruption pervades public infrastructure projects, the recent naming and shaming of the transport ministry for handpicking investors for major projects has epitomized the uphill battle facing Vietnam’s anti-graft movement: the surging influence interest groups have on the policymaking process.

Last Friday, the Government Inspectorate blamed the Ministry of Transport for “operational problems” at seven major projects in Hanoi and nearby provinces.

The inspectorate said in a report that the transport ministry had handpicked the investors instead of putting the projects out to tender. In response, the ministry claimed it had been forced to fast-track the process and select the only investors available that were interested in running the projects.

The report comes at a time when drivers in southern Vietnam are digging in against a new toll station in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang, saying they are being forced to pay extra fees for a highway they have already forked out for. The dispute has shown no sign of letting up, with the transport ministry and the investor both rejecting calls to relocate the toll station.

Vietnamese media has been unusually critical of the tollgate. In a scathing editorial on Sunday, Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper said it is time the ministry overhauled the build-operate-transfer model to avoid hitting the public where it hurts most – their pockets.

“It is essential that we follow through with state policies, but that doesn’t mean that the ministry cannot learn from the mistakes of previous administrations,” the editorial said, in a direct reference to the sitting Transport Minister Truong Quang Nghia.

His most recent successor is Dinh La Thang, who was removed from the elite Politburo, the Communist Party’s decision-making body, in May. He was later fired from his position as the top leader of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s biggest city and commercial hub. Thang was held responsible for “serious” violations and mismanagement during his time as state-run oil giant PetroVietnam’s chairman from 2009 to 2011.

In another 92-word editorial on Friday, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper was even more forthright. “The ministry must scrap the tollgate altogether and punish those responsible,” it said. “The ministry must accept its wrongdoings instead of acting as a shield for irrational goings-on.”

Vietnam’s top leadership has admitted to the surging influence interest groups have on the policymaking process, saying these groups could sway the formulation of the nation’s bread-and-butter policies.

In 2015, a Work Bank official said that the institution received more complaint about corruption in Vietnam than any other country in the world, barring India, with the transport, ICT and technology and water sectors topping the list.

In a system where too much state control over the economy has allowed politically connected insiders to profit, fighting corruption in Vietnam requires institutional reform, analysts say.

“Any substantial reforms for the nation will not be easy when vested interests are deeply rooted in state machinery and political patronage remains a key way to operate the system,” Hai Hong Nguyen, a visiting research fellow at the University of Queensland, wrote in a commentary in April.

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