HANOI – Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party was on track Tuesday for a smooth power transition after settling a power struggle between the party chief and the probusiness prime minister trying to unseat him.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung effectively withdrew from the contest to become the Communist Party general secretary, clearing the way for his rival to keep the post in what appears to be a compromise to present a united front to the nation, delegates at a party congress said Monday.
The drama began after Dung was excluded from an official list of candidates for positions in the Central Committee that will be elected Tuesday. In an apparently orchestrated move, his supporters then nominated him Sunday in a last-minute challenge. But according to party rules Dung was required to turn down the nomination since he was not an official candidate.
Dung abided by the party rules and refused the nomination. The congress then formally voted to accept his refusal. Had he wished, Dung could have tried to pull together enough support on the congress floor to have his refusal rejected. In that scenario, he might have won a place in the Central Committee, and then would have been in contention for party general secretary.
The path is now clear for Nguyen Phu Trong to stay as general secretary, the de facto top position in Vietnam’s collective leadership.
The delegates were presented with 220 candidates late Monday, of whom 180 were elected to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment. The names of the winning candidates were not immediately announced, but Trong is almost certainly one of them.
Later this week, the congress will elect the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam. It is expected that the Politburo will be expanded from the current 16 members to 18.
Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority, the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the National Assembly.
Trong had been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well ahead of the party congress, which takes place once every five years to choose new leaders.
But this year the rivalry between Dung and Trong extended into the party congress, which ends Thursday, although regardless of who is in power the fundamental makeup of the government and its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.
Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms and for boldly confronting China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. But even though Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, is now set to take the top job, it doesn’t mean the economic reforms will stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese-claimed waters, according to observers.
“Ideologically, there isn’t a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert based in Washington.
David Brown, a Vietnam expert and retired U.S. diplomat, said a new leadership could slow reform momentum.
“Dung is not a flat-out reformer … but while there are people who are dismissive of Dung, there are people who say he’s definitely the best of the bunch,” he said.
“He knows how to run a government, they’re pretty well organized and know where they’re going.”
Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
Trong’s camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the nonperforming loans of state-owned banks.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million out of its 93 million people. But, like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.