Vietnam: The Old Guard Strike Back

A worker repaints a statue of late president Ho Chi Minh at a public park in the southern city of Can Tho, Vietnam. Photo by Getty Images.
A worker repaints a statue of late president Ho Chi Minh at a public park in the southern city of Can Tho, Vietnam. Photo by Getty Images.

Every five years, the Communist Party of Vietnam holds a Congress to set the country’s agenda for the next five years, and choose a new leadership. The most powerful figure in the country is not the prime minister or president, but the general secretary of the Party. In the months leading up to the most recent Congress, held this week, the country’s prime minister for the past 10 years, Nguyen Tan Dung, had made it clear that he wanted the top job. As one of the key architects of Vietnam’s recently impressive economic growth and with a reputation as a shrewd political operator, most outside observers assumed that he would get his way.

But in the end he was thwarted by an alliance of opponents led by the current general secretary, 71-year old Nguyen Phu Trong. This is a clear sign that the Party wants to rein in some of the excesses of the past decade and firmly limit the prospects for political reform.

Conservative make-up

Dung fought hard. Shortly before the Congress, a letter was leaked to a well-known Vietnamese political blog. It was apparently Dung’s reply to various allegations laid against him. The simple fact that the letter was nine pages long and tackled 12 sets of charges shows how much dirt his opponents were throwing. Among the accusations were claims that he was responsible for the country’s economic bust in 2008-10, that he had unnecessarily antagonized China to the detriment of national security, that he was trying to promote democracy and that he and his family had enriched themselves through corruption.

Trong is an old-fashioned party man: he was educated in the Soviet Union and spent much of his career on the editorial staff of the Communist Review. He was re-elected despite being too old for the job under normal party rules; it’s expected that he will only serve half a term in office and then make way for another member of the Politburo. The most likely successor appears to be a man in the same mould as Trong – Đinh The Huynh who gained a PhD in journalism and political theory in the Soviet Union and then edited the Central Committee’s newspaper – Nhan Dan (The People).

There are other signs that political conservatism will dominate the Politburo. Of its 19 members (three more than before the Congress), four are serving or former police generals – including the man expected to become president: Tran Đai Quang. The Politburo is also dominated by northerners; 13 members come from the northern part of the country and only three from the south and three from the centre. The north is the party’s heartland and tends to be more socially and economically conservative.

However, as is usually the case with party decisions in Vietnam, the new Politburo will represent a balance between different interest groups. As well as the conservatives there are several figures with a track record of economic reform including the head of the central bank and former ministers of finance, transport, education and labour. The current foreign minister has been appointed to the Politburo for the first time, suggesting that Vietnam’s policy of balancing its relations with China and the United States will continue. These – and a few others – were all ‘Dung’s people’, so the prime minister’s legacy will continue, even if he won’t be in power. The new prime minister is likely to be Dung’s senior deputy, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Reform struggles in Vietnam’s future

Overall it appears that the Party has chosen to continue down the path of economic reform while maintaining firm political control. The Congress voted to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which means the National Assembly will follow suit in a few months. Privatizations of state-owned enterprises will continue. However the ideologues have studied the Soviet Union and China intensely. They are acutely aware that Party rule is at its most vulnerable during economic reform. The police generals will be resolutely opposed to pluralism or any form of democratization outside the Party’s control. Vietnam should expect ongoing tussles between a society becoming better off and more assertive and a political class that has no intention of giving up control.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme (Chatham House).

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