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How will Vietnam's leadership reshuffle affect the country?

OPINION: Vietnam’s recent Communist party congress saw key leaders replaced, signalling a strengthening of the party line and reinforcement of conservative values

Carlyle A. Thayer
March 1, 2016
How will Vietnam's leadership reshuffle affect the country?
Party line: delegates at Vietnam’s 12th national congress hold up Communist party ID cards to signal their vote. Photo: Reuters

OPINION: Vietnam’s recent Communist party congress saw key leaders replaced, signalling a strengthening of the party line and reinforcement of conservative values

Every five years since 1976, following the reunification of Vietnam, the country’s ruling Communist party has held a national congress. The latest congress, which took place in January, was attended by more than 1,500 delegates elected at provincial, municipal and national levels.

Although the list of candidates for the next term is drawn up by the outgoing leadership, party delegates theoretically have final authority over who is selected. Among other duties, the congress must vote on the make-up of the new Central Committee, which then elects the Politburo from among its members. The committee must then select the party leader or secretary general from the membership of the Politburo.

The January congress, the 12th in Vietnam’s history, was notable for its rejection of a bid by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to be given an exemption from the retirement age of 65 so he could be elected party secretary general. Dung’s bid was unprecedented because, since reunification, no senior leader who had served two terms in office has ever sought election to one of the other four top leadership posts.

As prime minister, Dung broke away from Vietnam’s mould of collective leadership. He created the persona of being a dynamic entrepreneurial leader. Under his stewardship, the Office of the Prime Minister grew in power and resources as Vietnam pursued “proactive international integration”. It could even be argued that the Office of the Prime Minister dwarfed the party itself.

Vietnam's Communist party congress
Party line: delegates at Vietnam’s 12th national congress hold up Communist party ID cards to signal their vote. Photo: Reuters

Dung’s success proved his undoing. In October 2012, a commanding majority of the Politburo voted to discipline him for economic mismanagement and failing to curb corruption. The Central Committee overturned the Politburo’s recommendation, but Dung was removed from his position as head of the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption.

The rift in the Politburo coalesced around a majority led by Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and a minority including Dung and his supporters. In 2014, when the National Assembly conducted a vote of confidence in government ministers and high-ranking officials, the first to be made public, Dung did poorly.

He rebounded the following year, and in January 2015 the Central Committee conducted a secret vote of confidence on the party leadership. According to results leaked to a popular Vietnamese website, Dung did quite well.

Then came Dung’s demise. Trong and his Politburo cohorts spent all of 2015 crafting rules and selection criteria designed to block Dung. A showdown took place at the Central Committee meeting, and Dung fell short in the ballot. Consensus was reached to give 71-year-old Trong – who is also well past retirement age – another term in office. It is likely that Vietnam will replace him  in the middle of his term.

While the new Central Committee is similar in structure to the outgoing committee, Trong will head an expanded Politburo composed of 19 members. It is notable that 13 (68%) are northerners, four are southerners and two are from central Vietnam. Four are or were generals in the Ministry of Public Security.

It should be added that current ministers, including the prime minister, are set to remain in office for about four more months. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, one of the current deputy prime ministers, is expected to replace Dung.

Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong extolled the virtues of collective leadership and one-party rule

After this, Vietnam will operate under a more close-knit collective leadership than before. Policymaking and implementation are likely to remain stable but proceed more slowly. The broad outlines of future policy were set out in the draft Five-Year Socio-Economic Plan 2016-2020,  which was released in September 2015 for public comment and adopted by the 12th congress with minor revisions.

The leadership will aim for annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth of about 7%. Priority will be given to maintaining macroeconomic stability, reducing public debt, tackling corruption and reforming state-owned enterprises. Secretary General Trong made clear at the recent congress that Vietnam would give priority to ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the huge Pacific Rim trade pact it signed last month.

Vietnam will continue on its course of engaging with the international community, while prioritising the economy. This will manifest itself in attempts to create a more favourable environment for foreign investment. Indeed, the political report adopted by the congress stressed that one of the functions of foreign affairs was to ensure the promotion of international economic integration.

The increased representation of current and former public security officials on the Central Committee and Politburo is likely to result in increased anti-corruption efforts as well as suppression of pro-democracy activists, especially those who have downed the pen in favour of the keyboard and online blogging. The current minister of public security, Tran Dai Quang, is slated to become president. His deputy, To Lam, will step up to become minister.

The conservative hue of the Politburo is reinforced by the promotion of General Ngo Xuan Lich to become the next minister of defence. Lich is currently the head of the Vietnam People’s Army General Political Department. In the lead-up to the 12th congress, the army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, published a series of articles warning of the “threat of peaceful evolution” by pro-democracy advocates.

Finally, Vietnam’s return to greater ideological orthodoxy domestically was signalled by Trong in his closing speech to the congress, where he extolled the virtues of collective leadership and one-party rule.

Carlyle A. Thayer is an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

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