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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 21, 2011


Lines of division in Vietnam
By The Hanoist

The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has chosen to stay the course by selecting a Marxist ideologue as its new general secretary. Nguyen Phu Trong, a 67-year old former editor-in-chief of the Communist Review and current chairman of the communist-controlled National Assembly, was a compromise choice of the just-concluded 11th National Congress.

According to local observers, the two most powerful figures entering the conclave were Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and CPV standing secretary Truong Tan Sang. Dung has controlled 

 
the levers of government for the past five years and his policy of favoring large state-owned enterprises, which were placed under the remit of the prime minister's office, gave him unprecedented control over the economy.

But he was also heavily criticized for backing a massive bauxite mining scheme in the Central Highlands region and mishandling Vinashin, the bankrupt state-owned shipping company with debts that reached 5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Sang has been in charge of the CPV on a day-to-day basis in a role akin to chief operating officer. He coordinated the party's personnel, ideological and other key functions. Some Vietnam watchers believe Sang quietly nurtured the public criticisms against Dung.

Both men are in their early 60s and have been rivals since they were elevated to the CPV's politburo in 1996. According to a classified US diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks: "Dung and Sang have amassed unparalleled influence in Vietnam's Party-state apparatus; they are arguably the two most powerful political figures in the country today. The problem is that, though rivals, Dung and Sang are also too alike for comfort - both are southerners."

Their competition generated intense jockeying in the days leading up to the congress. Dung's allies in state media tried to burnish his image by publishing stories referring to him as "the greatest leader in Asia" according to "the German media". Vietnamese bloggers looked into these claims and found that the single source of all the stories was one little known German website, www.firmenpresse.de, whose owner-operator was apparently seeking business contracts in Vietnam and advertises itself as a "full-service PR portal".

To be sure, new CPV general secretary Trong does have a support base. Prior to chairing the National Assembly, he was party boss of Hanoi and an enforcer of Marxist thought. According to the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily with diplomatic contacts, Trong also has close ties to China. An early indicator of this pivotal relationship will be how soon Trong travels to Beijing and how he handles the sensitive topic of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

At 67 years old, Trong received a waiver to serve past the mandatory retirement age and thus he will most likely not hold the post for more than one five-year term. This could potentially set up another transition battle in a short while.

Who's in, who's out
One official who lost his post is foreign minister Pham Gia Khiem. He got ejected from both the new 175-member central committee and 14-member politburo. The latter body, which is the supreme decision-making organ of the CPV, currently has no representation from the Foreign Ministry.

This omission signifies the lack of clout of Vietnam's diplomats in domestic power politics following a year in which Vietnam chaired the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hosted major global and regional summits. As of now, just three central committee members hail from the Foreign Ministry.

The security forces, on the other hand, increased their representation, demonstrating that security is still a top policy concern. Police and military generals snagged nine and 19 seats respectively on the Central Committee. Police representation on the politburo increased from one to two members, while the armed forces retained the politburo seat held by defense minister Phung Quang Thanh.

In a sign that the CPV is acquiring vestiges of a hereditary political system, the sons of current Prime Minister Dung and outgoing party general secretary Nong Duc Manh were appointed to the central committee. They join the ranks of other communist progeny holding senior posts.

In sum, the personnel choices indicate a continuation of the current policies and many of their inherent contradictions. For the economy, this means that private enterprise will continue to coexist uneasily with inefficient state-owned firms in an overall climate of policy uncertainty.

Investors hoping for a more transparent, level-playing field will be disappointed by the ascension of general secretary Trong, who advocated at the congress for "public ownership of the means of production". In his acceptance speech, Trong declared his continuing commitment to "advance Vietnam toward socialism."

In terms of external relations, the new communist leadership will still need to balance against China. This means seeking closer military relations with the United States, ASEAN and other regional powers for the sake of Vietnam's national security.

At the same time, party stakeholders will be driven by parochial interests - such as maintaining internal security, proving ideological consistency, and undertaking socialist-style development schemes - that will motivate a closer tilt toward communist-run Beijing for the Hanoi regime's longevity and legitimacy.

Later this year, the National Assembly will convene to rubberstamp the CPV's choices for president and prime minister, widely expected to be Truong Tan Sang and Nguyen Tan Dung. Party general secretary Trong will then lead a troika in which each of his nominally junior colleagues both believe that they instead should be CPV chief and thus the jostling for position likely did not end with the conclusion of the party congress.

The Hanoist writes on Vietnam's politics and people.

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