Almost 1,600 leading members of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam meet this week to approve policy and help select the nation’s top leaders, amid rumors about whether the party head plans to stay on.
Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, defied conventional wisdom by winning a second term in 2016 against a favored opponent.
Trong has made his name by presiding over economic growth and waging a popular war on corruption.
There has been speculation the selection of a new set of leaders is already a done deal, but the party is highly secretive and Vietnamese are not even allowed to publicly discuss candidates.
Hanoi’s streets have been lined with the party’s hammer and sickle flags and posters to promote the week-long congress, which is held every five years.
Vietnam is one of a handful of communist single-party states that tolerates no dissent, but policy is not completely dictated from the top.
A series of meetings down to the community level were held in each of Vietnam’s 63 provinces and municipalities to select the 1,587 delegates. They are to elect the party’s 200-member Central Committee, which is to choose between 15 and 19 of its members to serve on the Politburo, the highest party body.
The Politburo makes nominations for the “four pillars” — general secretary of the party, the nation’s most powerful job; the president, a largely ceremonial post; the prime minister; and the National Assembly chairman.
The nominations are then put to a vote at the party congress.
The party is known for its collective leadership, which means key decisions are determined by consensus in the Politburo. The agenda for the congress is set by the leadership chosen at the last meeting in 2016.
Factions associated with senior party leaders means that the contest for the highest jobs might not yet be settled.
“The biggest issue the party faces at the congress is appointing a new generation of leaders. However, because of different factions within the party, it has proven hard to get consensus on someone who can replace party chief Nguyen Phu Trong,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The party’s regulations don’t allow anyone to serve who is over 65 and/or has served two terms, but these rules will be waived so that Trong can continue another term, even though he has been in ill health in recent years.”
Tuong Vu, head of the political science department at the University of Oregon, said that the party leadership this year seems more united than in 2016.
“The challenge this time for the leadership is that the current General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s protege failed to garner enough support to replace him,” Vu said.
If his favored fellow Politburo member Tran Quoc Vuong cannot garner enough support, it opens the possibility Trong would get an exemption to serve a third term, he said.
“Given his ill health and advanced age, this also generates uncertainties about future succession,” Vu added.
Trong benefits from his record on the economy, Hiebert said.
The Vietnamese economy has grown an average of 6 percent over the past five years and nearly 3 percent last year, when most of its neighbors suffered a recession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hiebert said.
“It continued to attract foreign investment levels that are the envy of most of its neighbors and got an additional boost as companies sought to move part of their supply chain out of China in the wake of the US-China trade war,” he said.
On the debit side, Vietnam faced difficulty exploring for and exploiting offshore oil and gas due to China’s pressure on its activities in the South China Sea, Hiebert said.
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