By Nguyen Manh Hung
The recent congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which wrapped up January 28, was unique in many ways. It was the first congress in the internet era, which deprived the party of a monopoly of information to manipulate public opinion. In the midst of an intense struggle for power among the top leaders, the internet allowed non-official sources such as bloggers, websites, and social media to compete with government-controlled media to disseminate selective leaks, rumors, and misinformation in support of their candidates. It also gave overseas Vietnamese, foreign analysts, and foreign journalists a means to participate, willingly or not, in the Vietnamese political process by selecting and reporting news from their preferred sources.
Despite the unconventional process, party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will continue in his post while Nguyen Xuan Phuc is prime minister-designate following the ousting of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. While policy issues took center stage at previous party congresses, the recent congress put more emphasis on personnel. There has been a determined effort since the sixth party Central Committee plenum in October 2012 to remove Dung. The struggle between Dung’s supporters and detractors intensified as the congress approached.
For the first time, personnel issues were resolved through a majority vote and procedural manipulation. Central Party Decision #244 required that candidates for reelection to the leadership could only be recommended by the majority of the Politburo and the Central Committee. This effectively eliminated Dung due to his lack of support in those bodies and left Trong as the only candidate for reelection to the Central Committee and general secretary of the CPV.
Dung was ousted, but his oldest son was promoted from alternate to full member of the new Central Committee, and some of outgoing prime minister’s former associates were kept as members of the new politburo. In another key development, the party also nominated General Tran Dai Quang, currently minister of public security, for the position of state president and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as next chair of the National Assembly. For the first time, a woman will be one of the four pillars (tứ trụ) of Vietnam’s top leadership.
Since Vietnam’s constitution gives the president plenty of power, including the authority to propose the election and dismissal of all government officials and overall command of the armed forces, Quang could limit the influence of the prime minister if he chooses to exercise his constitutional power. Furthermore, while Dung ranked second in the former Politburo, Phuc ranks only sixth in the the new Politburo. He is not expected to exercise the same amount of power as Dung did.
Trong was ostensibly reelected to preserve the unity of the party, but he is not expected to serve a full term. When he steps down, the Central Committee will elect a replacement. If it chooses to elect Quang as general secretary and allows him to retain his position as state president, it would make him first among equals and facilitate the country’s capability to take quick, timely, and decisive actions.
In the new politburo, power is shared among party ideologues, security-minded officials, and members who have academic backgrounds and/or practical experience in economic policy.
Dung has been touted as the man who advocated bold moves toward a market economy, a strong position against China, and closer relations with the United States. But there are plenty of reasons to believe the new leadership will largely continue Dung’s policies.
During his visit to the United States last July, Trong pledged that Vietnam would do “everything necessary” to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the TPP requires economic reform to make Vietnam’s economy more competitive. It also requires, to a certain extent, political reform, especially in the area of human rights and workers’ rights. The issue of the TPP was discussed in the plenum just prior to the party congress and a clear consensus was reached on signing and ratifying the TPP agreement.
In terms of foreign policy, while talking to diplomats at the Vietnam Embassy in Washington after meeting with President Barack Obama in mid-2015, Trong declared, “the United States is the utmost important area of operation” for Vietnamese diplomacy.
As far as China is concerned, supporters of Dung have succeeded in creating a perception of Trong as weak and too accommodating to China. However, given the very strong anti-China sentiment both inside and outside the party, Trong cannot afford to make any moves that could be interpreted as pro-China.
Trong has won, but his road ahead is paved with difficulties and dangers. To make Vietnam’s economy more competitive, he must reform state-owned enterprises and overcome the resistance of powerful vested interests. Fighting corruption will incur the wrath of additional enemies. Many people who support Dung are suspicious of Trong as a “Chinese accommodationist,” and are resentful of his political maneuvers to hold onto power. Failure to stand up to new Chinese pressure, especially in the South China Sea, would undermine his authority and the legitimacy of the party.
Finally, there is the constant pressure for political reform, as reflected in an open letter signed by 127 prominent intellectuals and former officials on December 9, 2015, calling for the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and moves from authoritarianism to democracy. Under these circumstances, an economic crisis or loss of political confidence could create an explosive environment, the consequences of which are difficult to fathom.