Vietnam’s ruling Communist party has begun its secretive five-yearly reshuffle to select the leaders who will steer one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies through the coronavirus pandemic, trade tensions with the US and worsening political friction with China.
After closed-door deliberations in the politburo and the party’s central committee, 1,600 party delegates will endorse a new leadership slate, including the country’s four top ruling positions, at a congress to be held in Hanoi from January 25 to February 2.
The congress will train the international spotlight, albeit briefly, on some of the faces of the studiously grey and mostly old leadership of one of the world’s five remaining communist states.
The event will also bring to the fore — though not necessarily into the open — internal party divisions and regional differences between Vietnam’s politically supreme north and more business-friendly south.
“When you have a new leadership, you can picture how Vietnam will carry out policies in the next five years,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a scholar and writer on Vietnamese and international affairs based in Wellington.
“With different people on top, you have different scenarios for economic development, foreign affairs and social stability.”
Ahead of the meeting, the ruling politburo was expected to gather to draw up a list of candidates for the Communist Party of Vietnam’s next general secretary — the country’s supreme political position — as well as for the roles of the prime minister, president and national assembly chair.
The party’s central committee will then be asked to vote on the leadership candidates, whose election will be endorsed at the congress, wrapping up the exercise in time for the mid-February Tet lunar new year holiday.
The leadership reshuffle has been the subject of internal party jockeying in the months leading up and intense speculation among Vietnam’s 97m people.
Party officials’ fears of being caught on the wrong side of factional recriminations over corruption has in recent months slowed decision-making in areas such as permits for real estate, according to businesspeople and political analysts.
Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, the two-term general secretary and president, has made a crackdown on corruption, which the party sees as a threat to its legitimacy, a hallmark of his leadership, jailing numerous officials and state-owned company bosses.
Mr Trong, Vietnam’s most powerful leader in decades, is barred by the party’s charter from serving a third term and suffered a bout of illness last year. While he is widely expected to step down, analysts have not ruled out the possibility that he might seek to stay on.
Adding to the uncertainty, which stands in contrast to the CPV’s last congress in 2016, when Mr Trong beat rival Nguyen Tan Dung in a clear two-way race, party leaders have failed to narrow the field of candidates, according to analysts following the process.
“Usually they are able to settle on a party chief about a month before the formal congress,” said Alexander Vuving of the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “This time it’s uncertain.”
Among the leading candidates rumoured to be in the running to replace Mr Trong is Tran Quoc Vuong, the current general secretary’s right-hand man and a leader of the anti-corruption campaign.
Another party member tipped by analysts for the top job is Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, the prime minister. Mr Phuc has led Vietnam’s response to Covid-19, widely seen as among the most effective in the world, and has presided over an economy that before the pandemic was growing at 7 per cent.
Mr Phuc is said to have strong backing from some Central Committee members, but is from southern Vietnam rather than the party’s historic cradle in the north, which has produced all of its general secretaries.
Ngo Xuan Lich, 66, the minister of defence, has been also been mooted as a possible successor to Mr Trong, as has Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of the national assembly, according to some observers.
However, Ms Ngan, who is 66 and from the south, would face tough odds in a country where men dominate political life.
“Mr Phuc and Ms Ngan are business friendly, and that may be related to their ideological background,” said Mr Vuving. “They are not conservative and not ideologues, and they also happen to be from the south.”
While politburo leaders who are older than 65 are normally expected to retire, this year, all of the rumoured candidates for the top job have already passed that age.
But the party has twice made exceptions for Mr Trong, and is set to bend its age rule again this time.
Whoever assumes the top roles, Vietnam’s new leadership will need to contend with a lingering trade dispute with Washington, which in the waning days of Donald Trump’s administration labelled the country a currency manipulator against the backdrop of a swelling US trade deficit.
Notwithstanding the trade tensions, Vietnam has drawn closer to the US under Mr Trong’s leadership thanks to the countries’ shared distrust of China. Washington has backed Vietnam and its neighbours when they criticised Beijing over Chinese harassment of offshore energy operations and sinking of fishing boats in the South China Sea.
Business analysts expect Vietnam’s new leaders to continue with policies favourable to foreign investors at a time when many companies are looking for alternatives to China.
“Investors can take comfort from the fact that whoever the new leaders are, Vietnam will continue supporting foreign investment,” said Nguyen Phuong Linh, associate director with Control Risks, “because Vietnamese leaders need economic performance to justify their rule, and foreign investment is crucial to the country’s economic growth”.