By Jonathan London
The normally opaque Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam has made a public splash with its recently concluded 10th Central Committee plenum. The stakes are high and carry implications not only for Vietnam’s development but also for the strategic outlook of the entire region. So what exactly is going on?
The excitement centers on the issue of leadership succession and attendant struggles for power. In 2016 the Communist Party will hold its 12th party congress and before it does, it must choose a new crop of leaders. Several members of the country’s 16-member Politburo are scheduled to retire. After the congress, the top four positions in Vietnam’s politics – those of party general secretary, prime minister, state president, and chair of the national assembly – will have new occupants. Which individuals and coalitions will prevail and in what combination is the question at hand.
As in most one-party states, the politics of succession in Vietnam is meant to take place back stage. Evidence of what is actually occurring is systematically concealed. It is Vietnam’s present deviation from this pattern that has observers taking notice. Indeed, the manner in which events are playing out is lifting a curtain on Vietnam’s elite politics in a way that is without historical precedent. There have been several sets of surprises.
The first set has sprung from the process and alleged but non-verifiable outcomes of an unusual and nominally secretive round of confidence voting, in which 197 members of the Central Committee rated individual members of the Politburo according to their degree of confidence in members’ performance. That the Politburo would subject itself to a round of confidence voting by its formally supervisory Central Committee reminds us that, when it comes to politics, Vietnam’s party has cut its own cloth. China this is not.
The long-delayed confidence vote was proposed by party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong as a means of naming and shaming bad-behavior within the Politburo. Recall that in 2012, the bid by Trong and other Politburo members to penalize an unnamed Politburo member (widely assumed to be Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung) failed when the Central Committee refused to consent and instead required the entire Politburo to reflect on its collective shortcomings. Confidence voting appeared to offer an alternative means of disciplining poor-performers, albeit behind tightly closed doors.
The second surprise: Rather than being allowed to pass as “internal business” (công việc nội bộ) the confidence voting has drawn wide public interest, particularly given its timing. As the 2016 crop of leaders will most likely consist entirely of Politburo members, the confidence vote – though intended to be strictly secret – has rightly or wrongly been seen as a barometer on political fortunes ahead of the party congress.
Though most Vietnamese do not follow party politics closely, Vietnam has in recent years developed an increasingly dynamic political culture, thanks to the rapid spread of the internet and the opportunities it has presented Vietnamese to read about and comment about virtually anything that strikes them, including politics.
This leads to a third intriguing development, the appearance of mysterious and heavily visited website, Profiles in Power, which has within the past several weeks published scandalous but seemingly well-documented accounts of several Politburo members’ alleged bad-behavior, including at least two members who were regarded as likely shoe-ins for 2016. The appearance of the website and discussion it has sparked has clearly had an impact, and prompted government calls to steer clear of it.
While some have characterized Profiles in Power as a “smear campaign” the site aims to keep tabs on all sitting Politburo members. One of its most striking features is the seemingly evidence-based reporting it offers. In a country where the press is comprehensively subordinated to elite power, a website of this sort has seismic implications. Vietnamese are certainly taking note. Who knew, for example, that a twenty-something year-old child of a conservative Politburo member and candidate for a leading state post appears to own two homes in southern California? Subsequent to the confidence voting, the site published allegations and evidence suggesting that a key minister – who has also been mentioned as a candidate for a top post – has with his family also amassed properties by dubious means. Whether the allegations are well-grounded remains to be seen.
The final noteworthy and somewhat ironic outcome of the plenum concerns the results of the confidence voting itself. By all accounts it was none other than Dung himself who received the highest votes. By contrast, several other candidates, including two featured on the Profiles website prior to the vote, finished near the bottom.
Among Vietnam’s current top four leaders, only Dung is eligible to serve beyond 2016. After Dung and excluding the minister most recently alleged to have amassed ill-gotten properties, the two Politburo members with the highest confidence scores who are also eligible to serve after 2016 are Dung allies. All this suggests that politics in Vietnam are developing in the prime minister’s favor.
For the 85 years of its existence, the Communist Party of Vietnam has sought to manage its leadership successions according to principles of closed consensus on the one hand and faithfulness to the party on the other. This formula, which was seen as a source of strength during wartime, has also been variously criticized for generating stale leaders, reinforcing political stalemates, undermining principles of merit, and preventing the emergence of more decisive leadership. Are conditions ripe for change?
While it’s too soon to know who will gain top leadership posts next year, it now seems that Dung is the odds on favorite to become the next general secretary while several figures associated with Dung appear to enjoy relatively high confidence among their party peers. Why might this matter?
Dung remains something of an enigma. While some question his sincerity, he is nonetheless the country’s most eloquent statesman and author of the most liberal blueprint for Vietnam’s development, his 2014 New Year’s address. He has repeatedly announced that “democracy is the future,” has not flinched in the face of Beijing’s aggressive antics in the South China Sea, and appears very much at ease with the idea of close ties to the United States.
While we cannot know the future, recent events evidence greater transparency in Vietnam’s politics. Though not by design, this is nonetheless a significant development. It’s a pinhole view into Vietnam’s increasingly dynamic political scene.
Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian & International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (2014 Palgrave Macmillan) and the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam. Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.