Vietnam's new premier faces party cleanup, economic woes

Vietnam has had three government leaders in less than a year, perhaps the best weather vane for ill winds blowing through Hanoi. This triple turnover, marked by the selection of little-known Do Muoi as prime minister on Wednesday, contrasts sharply with the 42-year stint of Pham Van Dong until 1987.

It also reflects the dilemmas in one of Moscow's most-troubled allies. For one, the ``old guard'' who fought with Ho Chi Minh has clung to a Confucian seniority system that helps keep collective unity, but tends to lock the old and ailing into top slots.

Do Muoi, who joined the Communist movement in 1931 at age 14, was senior in age and party rank to the man who was the acting prime minister, Vo Van Kiet, and less popular. He masterminded the squashing of private capitalism in southern Vietnam in the late 1970s, a move now being reversed under Soviet-style reforms.

Mr. Kiet, seen as a more able administrator than a disciplining leader, lost out to Do Muoi after holding the post for only three months following the death of Prime Minister Pham Hung.

One reason why Do Muoi was not made prime minister immediately after Hung's death may be that he took a job just last year that is perhaps the most demanding in Vietnam today: cleaning up the Communist Party itself.

In the nearly two years since the party's reform-orienting sixth congress, the Hanoi leadership has focused on liberalizing economic policies, only to be stymied by lower officials deemed incompetent or corrupt. Do Muoi, elevated in early 1987 to the second position in the party's day-to-day management body, led a purge of errant party members, but the effort has proved frustrating.

The party, he wrote last year, was being ``gunned down by sugar-coated bullets'' - sweet-talking but corrupt party cadres.

In early June, the policy-making Central Committee met in its fifth plenum and, instead of issuing yet more economic edicts as in the recent past, focused on party organization.

The leadership ``is not up to its revolutionary tasks and has not met the requirements of renovation and the people's demands and aspirations,'' said a plenum report. It decided that one-third of the membership of all party committees, including the Central Committee, will be removed at each congress. Party committee secretaries generally will not remain in their posts more than 10 years.

By the end of the year, a larger meeting of the party will be held that could go even further. Vietnamese journalists report privately ``a few'' members of the party's highest body, the Politburo, will be removed.

Do Muoi's elevation to the top government slot was approved at the plenum and rubber-stamped by the National Assembly meeting this week. He must now tackle an economy on the skids and a budding food emergency in the north.

Both crises are as difficult as party purging, and Hanoi officials say they hope Do Muoi has enough stature to wield authority over state bureaucrats. Kiet's failure may have been this lack of leadership, despite his technocratic efficiency.

By choosing Do Muoi, who is close to Moscow, Hanoi creates the impression that it is tackling corruption, something that might please the Soviets who worry that their massive aid to Vietnam often disappears. His career has been one of being a conservative Marxist economic manager, first in the port city of Haiphong (where Soviet ships unload), rising to the Politburo in 1976.

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