Between January 20 and 28, Việt Nam’s ruling Communist Party is scheduled to convene its 12th national congress.
The Party congress is to Việt Nam in some sense what the presidential election is to the United States:
It decides who the country’s next leaders will be.
But there are some very significant differences between the Vietnamese and American systems.
In the United States, the president is elected by members of the Electoral College who are in turn elected by millions of voters.
In Việt Nam, it is the delegates of the National Congress who elect the Central Committee, which then elects the Party general secretary (the country’s supreme leader) and the Politburo members (the country’s collective leadership).
But even the congress delegates will have very limited choices.
Usually the outgoing Central Committee will select the next Party chief complete with the next Politburo, the next prime minister, the next state president, the next National Assembly chair, and the next cabinet members.
The outgoing Central Committee also assembles a list of candidates from which the congress can form the next Central Committee.
In the United States, you don’t know who will be in the government until you know who the president is.
In Việt Nam, the order is reversed.
The most consequential question is answered last, and the least important first.
Thus, you only find out who the next Party chief is in the last moments before the Party congress, but you can be more certain about the new cabinet’s members much earlier.
Although the next government will be formally selected by a new National Assembly that is to be elected the coming May, most of the ministries are already fairly clear on who their next minister will be.
According to diplomatic sources in Hà Nội, the Defense Ministry will get a new boss in the person of the present head of the Vietnam People’s Army General Political Directorate, Ngô Xuân Lịch.
The Public Security Ministry will also change ministers, with Tô Lâm, one of the present deputy ministers, slated to be the new minister.
Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh will remain in his current job.
By the time of the 13th Central Committee Plenum in late December 2015, the most likely scenario also foresaw current Public Security Minister Trần Đại Quang becoming the next Party boss of Hồ Chí Minh City and current Chief of the VCP Central Propaganda Commission Đinh Thế Huynh the new Party boss of Hà Nội.
The top four posts – Party chief, prime minister, state president, and National Assembly chair – were to be decided at the VCP Central Committee’s 14th plenum, which took place early this week.
The pool of candidates for these highest positions is limited, however, because they must be in the current Politburo and most of the current Politburo members will retire at the 12th congress.
According to a rule that has been in place for years, the age limit for a Politburo member to stay into a next term is 65.
Ten of the current 16 Politburo members will be older than 65 years at the time of the 12th congress.
The 14th Plenum was to make decision about the exceptions to this rule.
Basically the question was, who among the current top four – Party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng, State President Trương Tấn Sang, Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, and National Assembly Chair Nguyễn Sinh Hùng – would stay.
The strongest scenario that emerged at the 13th plenum was that Party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng would be the only exception to the rule, and he would stay for two more years in his current job, which then would be turned over to either Trần Đại Quang or Đinh Thế Huynh.
The new state president would be either current Fatherland Front Chairman Nguyễn Thiện Nhân or current Vice-Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyễn Thị Kim Ngân.
Ngân and current Deputy Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phuc would be the candidates for the prime minister’s post.
And the one among the three who did not get the other two posts would be the new National Assembly chair.
At the 14th plenum, the Central Committee reportedly voted for Trọng to remain general secretary, Quang to become the new state president, Phúc to be the next prime minister, and Ngân to be the new National Assembly chair.
(In another important development, the 14th plenum also endorsed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, making certain that Việt Nam will sign and ratify the pact.)
Basically the question was, who among the current top four – Party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng (second from left), State President Trương Tấn Sang (second from right), Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng (left), and National Assembly Chair Nguyễn Sinh Hùng (right)– would stay
The leadership equation recommended by the 14th plenum will remain just that – a recommendation – until the 12th Party Congress makes the final decision.
Until then, the toughest question, “who will be the next Party chief,” cannot be viewed as resolved.
This question has been the trickiest one for every congress for decades.
But the hallmark of the 12th congress next week is that the race for the highest position in the country is the most tense ever.
The leading contenders for the post are the incumbent general secretary, Trọng and the prime minister, Dũng.
Dũng is extremely determined to become the next general secretary, and Trọng is equally determined to deny him the job.
What’s more, the two are polar opposites.
At their core, Trọng is a mandarin, while Dũng is a capitalist; one is loyal to his principles, the other to his profits.
This personality contrast is one of the reasons for the severity of their clash.
These characteristics should not imply, as many outside observers often assume, that Trọng is pro-China and anti-Western while Dũng is pro-U.S. and anti-China.
The reality is far more nuanced and complex.
In fact, neither Trọng nor Dũng can be described as either soft or tough on China; each combines softness with toughness in his own way.
One of Dũng’s best remembered statements is his heroic comment on Việtnam’s relations with China:
“We do not trade sovereignty and territorial integrity for a quixotic peace and a dependent friendship.”
During the HYSY-981 oil rig crisis of 2014, Dũng advocated launching legal action against China in the South China Sea.
More recently, Dũng was the only Vietnamese leader to offer Chinese President Xi Jinping a full hug when the latter visited Hà Nội in early November 2015.
Perhaps to reward this and other offers Dũng made during that talk, Xi then extended the only invitation he made during the trip to Dũng, rather than to his rivals Trọng and Sang, to visit China in the future.
A veteran watcher of Sino-Vietnamese relations has commented that this signaled the Chinese approval of Dũng as the next leader of Việt Nam.
Some analysts also note that China’s redeployment of the HYSY-981 oil rig near the Vietnamese EEZ and test flights on a newly built airstrip in the Spratlys, both in the time period between the 13th end 14th plenums, may help to strengthen Dũng’s position in his bid for Việt Nam’s top job.
In contrast, Trọng’s public comments on Việt Nam’s relations with China are remarkable for their dullness.
Responding to voters’ concerns about China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Trọng said:
“We have maintained independence and sovereignty, but we must also resolutely preserve the regime, ensure the leadership role of the Party, maintain a peaceful and stable environment for national construction and development, and maintain friendly relations with other countries, including China.”
Behind the scenes, however, Trọng made some decisions that can only be viewed as tough on China and soft on the United States.
In 2011, he strongly defended the appointment of Phạm Bình Minh as the new Foreign Minister, over China’s objections.
(Minh is the son of former Foreign Minister Nguyễn Cơ Thạch, whose retirement at the 7th VCP congress in 1991 was one of China’s conditions for renormalization between the two countries.)
In 2012, Trọng threw his support behind the Law of the Sea of Việt Nam, passage of which had been delayed for years due to Chinese opposition.
More recently, in 2015, Trọng yielded to U.S. insistence and made a major concession to allow independent labor unions, paving the way for Việt Nam to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Party vs. Government?
Many outside observers view the political infighting in Việt Nam as a rivalry between the Party and the government, with Trọng commanding the Party camp and Dũng the government bloc.
Again, the reality is not so simple.
Within the framework of a party-state, there is significant fluidity between party and government structures.
This is even more true with the “circulation of cadres” (luân chuyển cán bộ), a practice copied from China, where senior officials have to rise through different positions in the government bureaucracy and the Party apparatus both at the central and provincial levels.
Trọng and Dũng, through their position at the apex of the two structures, can mobilize their respective apparatus to a certain extent, but their real power rests on networks that cut across the Party-government border.
For example, of the five deputy prime ministers, only one – Hoàng Trung Hải – is Dũng’s ally; none of the other four – Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, Vũ Văn Ninh, Vu Duc Dam, and Pham Binh Minh – is in the Dung camp. At the same time, many of the Party bosses in the provinces and the central Party apparatus are allies of Dung, while Trong also has his allies in the central and provincial Government bureaucracies.
Nor does the ideological frame of conservatives vs. reformers seem to fit the Trọng-Dũng contest.
Whether Dũng is a reformer is a contentious issue.
Supporters believe that he promotes institutional reform with more market and less state. Dũng’s 2014 New Year address sounded like a reformist manifesto.
Authored by former Trade Minister Trương Đình Tuyển, a credentialed reformer, the address contends that institutional reform and democratization are the two key motors of development and urges the Party to “hold firm the banner of democracy.”
The main tenets of the address, such as “the core of doi moi is democratization,” are no different than those advocated for years by Nguyen Trung, another credentialed reformer. (Trung is the author of then Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s 1995 memo, which also outlined a reformist platform, and for which Kiet was attacked by conservatives.) Critics, however, argue that there is a big gap between Dung’s rhetoric and his action. They believe that Dung is willing to sacrifice the national interest for his own personal interest and the interests of his family and cronies. His name has been associated with the default of large state-owned conglomerates Vinashin and Vinalines, which caused losses of billions of dollars.
Trọng meanwhile is at best a moderate with some conservative inclinations and at worst a conservative out of touch with reality.
His insistence on regime preservation, a leading role for the state in the economy, and other conservative ideas have obstructed reform.
Yet Trọng has also promoted many reformers.
The views of Vương Đình Huệ, a former Finance Minister who was brought into the Party apparatus by Trọng to head the Party’s Central Economic Commission, are not too far from those of Trương Đình Tuyển.
Another prominent protégé of Trọng is the late Nguyễn Bá Thanh, the charismatic Party boss of Đà Nẵng who was brought in to lead the Party’s central anti-corruption commission.
Thanh was, as a Western investor has observed, “the nearest Việt Nam has to a Lee Kuan Yew.”
Trọng’s fierce opposition to Dũng’s bid for power has also attracted many reformers who view Trọng’s leadership as the more viable alternative to a future full of crony capitalism, corruption, and more authoritarianism.
Việt Nam is at its most critical juncture since the end of the Cold War 26 years ago.
But its ruling elite is faced with an impossible choice.
Ultimately, though, the best hope for those who wish to see Việt Nam become the next Asian tiger may lie not in the choice that is made, in the unintended consequence of the political clash it entails.
By ALEXANDER L. VUVING (*)
(*) Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Source: The Diplomat