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Vietnam's party congress has observers guessing

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Delegates of Vietnam's Communist Party cast their votes at the last National Congress in 2011.   © Reuters

Hanoi is rife with speculation ahead of the 12th National Congress of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, scheduled for Jan. 20 to 28. Unlike most previous party congresses, when the next leadership crop was known and widely accepted well in advance, even party insiders have been kept guessing this time.

     The congress, which is tasked with selecting the country's top leadership and setting party policy for the next five years, takes place 30 years after Vietnam embarked on its market-oriented reforms, known as Doi Moi, or "renewal." It had been expected to usher in a new era, but the weeklong session is likely to be consumed by debate over the most contentious personnel questions. Who will serve in the top four leadership positions -- party general secretary, president, prime minister and National Assembly chairman? Who among the current top leaders could have their terms extended? And what are, or should be, the criteria for selecting the next party chief?

     At the center of party tensions are efforts by a conservative faction led by party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to exclude Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung from the next leadership team. Dung, one of Vietnam's most powerful premiers to date, is known for his ambition to become the next party chief, the highest position in the political system.

     Meanwhile, Trong, an unadorned party theorist known for his tough talk against corruption, shrewdly pulled the weight afforded him by the party apparatus to finalize the ins and outs of the upcoming congress. He appeared on state television giving the last word at a series of party plenums in late 2015 and early 2016 that were intended to prepare for the big event.

     While what happened at those plenums remains secret, many unofficial reports quoting "informed government sources" seem to back the optics on state television, and the prevailing theory, that Trong has gained the upper hand over Dung.

     According to these reports, the Politburo, Vietnam's highest decision-making body, did not include Dung's name on a roster of the next top four leaders presented to the 173 party central committee members at the final plenum, which concluded on Jan. 13. These sources believe Trong instead put himself forward as a "special candidate" -- given he is over the compulsory retirement age of 65 -- to retain his current job for another half term or full term.


Whether the outcomes of the congress will confirm these reports remains to be seen, and the dynamics are unpredictable. More than 1,000 delegates from across Vietnam will be in attendance. The party leader has urged central committee members to "carry the spirit of the [final] plenum into the congress."

     The stakes could not be higher for winners, losers and attendees alike. For Dung, the apparent turnaround in political fortunes -- from being widely seen as unchallenged for the top job -- can be traced to accusations levied against him in late 2015 by three academics at the Ho Chi Minh Academy, Trong's former backyard and the training ground for rising party cadres.

     In a letter, the three argued that Dung lacked the right credentials to lead the party. They noted that he was associated with the bankruptcy of two large state-owned shipbuilding enterprises; that his daughter was married to an American citizen, whose parents worked for the U.S.-backed Saigon regime during the Vietnam War, and had become an American citizen herself; and that his sons were put in positions of power despite their young age.

     But most damning were their suggestions that Dung may harbor ambitions to pave the way for a "color revolution" if elected party leader, and that his most famous statement -- "Vietnam will never barter national sovereignty for a quixotic peace and friendship, and some sort of dependency" -- went against party policy on handling China-Vietnam relations.

     Dung made the statement in question at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila in May 2014, just after China deployed an oil drilling rig into waters claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea. Party authorities reportedly agreed to investigate these accusations, effectively suspending his eligibility to contest the top four positions.

     While the charges might have dimmed Dung's prospects within the Politburo, it prompted heated debate in the Vietnamese blogosphere and social media -- from where most young people get their news -- about who would be the best candidate to lead Vietnam in the face of rising challenges posed by China. It also, perhaps ironically, helped to boost Dung's popular appeal among the public.

     The party's internal hand-wringing thus turned into a public debate on China, a source of influence and threat that weighs more heavily on the Vietnamese psyche than anything else. About 74% of Vietnamese surveyed by Pew Global Attitudes in 2015 cited unfavorable sentiment toward China, the second-highest disapproval rate toward Beijing in Asia, after only Japanese (at 89%). A key question is whether and how this sentiment will influence Vietnam's leaders at their upcoming congress.


For Trong, the weeklong session will be a critical test for his resurgent power. Trong's trump card against Dung is Decision 244, which he proposed to central committee members and gained approval for back in 2014. This revoked the right of delegates at the 12th Congress to self-nominate or nominate others to the party central committee -- from which Politburo members are chosen -- without the current Politburo's pre-approval. If delegates readily abide by this guideline, and if reports indicating Dung did not make the Politburo's cut are proven right, Trong will have ended Dung's storied political career.

     But will Trong secure the necessary support to remain in his post? Few can argue that he lacks a clean background. However, with his re-election bid announced this late in the game, it is not clear if Trong will have enough stamina and resources to win over the delegates, as well as to maintain the support of central committee members who allegedly backed his shortlisting. Amid Vietnam's increasingly vibrant political culture, there are also concerns among intellectuals that Decision 244, if it goes unquestioned, could limit the central committee's authority, and curb the autonomy of party members in general. If Trong wants to win this round, he will need still more strategic cards to play.

     To top off the intrigue right before the congress, another high-profile letter dated early January, apparently drafted by former president and respected Senior Gen. Le Duc Anh, called on the party to allow its members the right to self-nominate and nominate others to the top posts. The letter dutifully reminded the central committee of the priorities facing the next party chief, and thus the importance of their choices: The next party leader will need to be able to defend Vietnam's maritime sovereign interests and further the country's economic development. The short but pointed letter has made the rounds on social media since the final plenum concluded. And so a momentous battle over credentials begins.

Phuong Nguyen is associate fellow at the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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