By Zachary Abuza
The Vietnamese Communist Party is finalizing personnel decisions ahead of its 12th congress, scheduled for the first quarter of 2016. The once-every-five-year party congress helps assure both continuity and a regular turnover of the top leadership. More than half of the existing Politburo is expected to stay on. But there is a mandatory retirement age; no one can be older than 65 at the start of the congress. Only six members of the current group of 16 will be eligible to serve in the 12th Politburo.
As a result, there is going to be a significant loss of experience and continuity for Vietnam. The six eligible members have only served one term. Nine of the other ten older members have multi-term experience. Four of the ten have served two terms, one has served three terms, and the remaining four have served four terms.
The 11th congress elected a 14-member Politburo. Two more members were added mid-term. The average age of the current group is 65. The youngest is 59, the only member in his 50s; the oldest is 71. Only two of the 16 members are women.
Due to the high number of retirees, it is looking increasingly likely that at least one, and possibly two members will be given exemptions to stay on, a precedent set when the current general-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was selected.
The jockeying for position within the party between conservatives and reformists has been intense, but reformists now seem to have the clear edge.
The post of party general secretary is the most important position as it determines the pace and scope of economic and political reform. Consensus, at least for now, appears to have emerged around Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who would be 66 at the time of the congress and would require a waiver to stay on.
Dung has stormed back after being politically dead in the water a few years ago as a result of a host of corruption and nepotism scandals under his watch. In 2013, Dung received the lowest rating in the National Assembly’s first vote of confidence, in which 32 percent gave him “low confidence.” Yet in 2014, 64 percent of lawmakers gave him “high confidence,” and only 14 percent “low confidence.”
Yet the change in confidence about his performance could also have been driven by those trying to outmaneuver party conservatives who were hoping to capitalize on another poor showing by Dung. The reality is, Dung’s hardline stance on China, support for economic reforms, outreach to the United States, and in particular the potential gains of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement have carried the day within the party.
Some conservatives, who believe that the party has been pushed too far into the background, had lined up behind Dinh The Huynh, the head of the Propaganda and Education Commission of the party and former editor-in-chief of Nhan Dan, the party’s flagship daily. But many in the Central Committee were concerned about the negative impact that the appointment of an ideologue would have on economic reforms, especially of state-owned enterprises and other aspects of TPP implementation, and integration with the West. Support for Huynh soon dissipated.
Tran Dai Quang, the minister of Public Security, has been floated as a compromise candidate. Yet, he is the youngest member of the politburo and has no economic experience. Many observers believe he is likely to be moved to the post of party chief of Ho Chi Minh City, which would broaden his experience beyond internal security and position him to assume the top party post at the next congress in 2021.
There appear to be two candidates for the premiership. Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is a protégé of Dung and enjoys high standing in the National Assembly. He is responsible for the economic portfolio and has received plaudits for pulling the economy out of a slowdown. Phuc is the clear frontrunner.
The second candidate is a rising star in the party. Nguyen Thien Nhan was brought in to the politburo mid-term as a deputy prime minister. His promotion to the politburo was meant to send a positive signal to the business community and international investors, as he was the politburo’s first western-educated member. In 2013, Nhan was transferred to head the Vietnam Fatherland Front, the party’s umbrella organization that oversees civil society organizations. This is a very difficult job that essentially attempts to keep a lid on Vietnam’s burgeoning civil society. Nhan has been credited for helping defuse unprecedented labor unrest that wracked the country in March and April.
To date, there do not appear to be clear leading candidates to assume the presidency. It might fall to someone with an age waiver, including the current incumbent Truong Tan Sang. Sang has both gravitas and respect from nearly all quarters. He has quietly been behind many key reforms, but has managed to not alienate conservatives in the process. And unlike Dung, he has never been dogged by corruption allegations.
Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the vice chairwoman of the National Assembly, and concurrently a member of the party secretariat, which is involved in running day-to-day operations, is likely be elevated to chair the National Assembly. Despite the paucity of women in the leadership, Ngan has a broad base of support and is seen as highly competent. She can be expected to continue the development of the rule of law, while at the same time, maintaining party control over the legislature.
Vietnamese politics remain both secretive and driven by a desire for continuity. The party brooks no dissent and continues to maintain its monopoly of power. And yet, the next generation of leaders is increasingly more media savvy and cognizant of their need to be publicly accountable. And while there is still time to make changes, the personnel selections to date auger well for both deepened economic reform and changes in leadership style.