By Hung Nguyen
The Seventh Plenum of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) met from May 2 to May 11 to discuss, among other things, “possible ways to perfect the political system, [strengthen] party building, and [promote] the party leadership in mass mobilization work.” The plenum was also tasked to elect three additional members to the Politburo.
The plenum produced a major surprise: instead of electing two candidates highly recommended by the Politburo and Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong—Nguyen Ba Thanh and Vuong Dinh Hue—it elected Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan and National Assembly vice president Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan to the Politburo. Nhan is the body’s first U.S.-educated member and Ngan is the second woman to join the current Politburo. The plenum failed to reach a decision on a third additional Politburo member. In its selections, the party’s Central Committee failed to take its orders from the Politburo, supposedly the party’s highest authority.
Nhan (born in 1953) and Ngan (born in1954) bring the number of Politburo members who will not reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 by the time of the next party congress in 2016 to six. Barring unforeseen circumstances, they are expected to remain members of the Politburo and assume top leadership positions when the old guards retire.
Nhan was one of two rising young stars when he was appointed to the position of minister of education and training in 2006 then promoted to deputy prime minister along with fellow rising star Hoang Trung Hai. While Hai’s star stopped shining, Nhan continued to be promoted. Last year, he was given the China portfolio and co-chaired, with Chinese state councilor Yang Jeichi, the sixth meeting of the Vietnam-China Bilateral Cooperation Guiding Committee on May 10, 2013 in Beijing. The fact that Nhan had to leave the plenum one day before it ended shows the importance of his position and of the China factor in Vietnamese politics. He is a good candidate to succeed Nguyen Tan Dung as prime minister after the 2016 party congress.
Ngan is one of four vice presidents of the National Assembly, only one other of whom sits on the Politburo. She has wide experience with legislative and executive work at both the local and national level (she previously served as minister of labor, war invalids, and social affairs). She is an obvious front runner for the position of National Assembly president after the next party congress.
Both of the favorites passed over for election to the Politburo—Nguyen Ba Thanh and Vuong Dinh Hue—were recently selected for their current posts in the Central Committee’s Internal Affairs and Economic Affairs Commissions by Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to lead the fight against corruption. Their failure to be elected was therefore a defeat for Trong, seriously weakening his authority and ability to seek political allies, and threatening his job. It also signaled that fighting corruption was not a highest priority for the plenum. This is déjà vu. In 1999 General Le Kha Phieu, secretary general at the time, launched a two-year campaign to eradicate corruption; he eventually lost his job and corruption worsened.
Trong is known as an ideological conservative and is identified with a faction advocating reliance on China to save the party and its ideology. While his effort to fight corruption is commendable, his rigid ideological beliefs and his allegedly pro-China stance are liabilities. They deprive him of support both inside and outside the party.
Trong’s failure put Nguyen Ba Thanh in an awkward situation. The former party boss of Danang is known as a good manager—he built Danang into an example of development success—a dynamic leader, and a man of his word. Upon his appointment to chair the Internal Affairs Commission, he threatened to “immediately arrest” any wrong doers. This certainly does not endear him to people who were alienated by his tough talk. Failing to get a seat on the Politburo, he is outranked by some of his enemies and his authority to combat corruption seriously undermined. He must now either look for new allies, remain patient and bid for time, or resign as he once said he if unable to do his job. But given his popularity and proven managerial skills, it is too early to count him out.
The plenum reflected a power struggle within the leadership of the Communist Party. Whoever comes out on top will still have to face a restless population angry over scandals and corruption, land grabbing by officials, violations of human and civil rights, and perceived party and government weakness in the face of Chinese imperialism. This could turn out to be an explosive combination if and when economic growth stalls.
The fact that the party emphasized the need to mobilize the masses before and after the plenum shows that its leaders are well aware of the gap between the party and the people who are turning their backs on it. The plenum, however, failed to give any indication that an effective policy has been agreed upon to close this gap and restore the party’s legitimacy.
Hung Nguyen is a professor at George Mason University.