The unprecedented political jockeying that is engulfing the Vietnamese Communist Party as it selects new leaders this week is a reflection of the struggles the party is facing as it deals with new pressures that are buffeting the nation from both inside and outside its borders.
While the choice of the Vietnam's political leaders is generally a foregone conclusion in the one-party state, the 2016 National Congress which officially begins on Thursday isn't so cut-and-dried. Party leaders are dealing with a population that is increasingly restless with corruption, a business community seeking market reforms and an emboldened China that is making incursions on Vietnam's sovereignty.
RFA’s Vietnam Service reports that the party’s central committee will allow party chief Nguyen Phu Trong to stay on as a place-holder general secretary for what might amount to half of a five-year term. That would put Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on the political sidelines.
At the same time, the committee tapped General Tran Dai Quang, now national police chief, to become state president while it promoted Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to prime minister, the sources told RFA. This new line-up, which also elevates National Assembly Vice-Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan to chairwoman, could not be independently confirmed.
If true, the choices, put the nation's hard-line leaders in control, even as the party gives them a short leash to address the nation's problems.
Corruption an issue
"One of the issues addressed at this congress is to cleanse the party," Hanoi economist Ngo Tri Long told RFA.
Corruption issues are a rising concern with the Vietnamese people, particularly businessmen who are seeking foreign investment and more market-oriented approach, he said. The issue is a sore spot for Dung, who had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption.
"There have been a number of measures introduced to cope with corruption but have not yet showed any effect, and that is why the people think that they party hasn't really paid much attention to this issue," he said. "Once the goal is achieved, it will pave the way for the development of economy. By then the economic reform will go into orbit, but corruption is the biggest obstacle for the economic development of Vietnam."
The fight for the top slots exposed a rift within the party that pits conservative apparatchiks who back Trong against Dung, who is viewed as more open to the West and particularly the United States.
The intra-party squabbling reflects the political and economic changes that are forcing the nation to reassess the strategic balance it must strike between China and the United States. China and Vietnam may be ideologically aligned, but Hanoi’s party elites see the United States as an important counterweight as relations with Beijing have been strained.
China and economic reform
Vietnam's next leader will play a key role in deciding Vietnam's economic reforms, which have brought a flood of foreign investment, a fledgling stock market and helped triple per capita GDP in 10 years. He will also help craft the country's relations with China which has raised Vietnamese ire by building islands with airstrips and moving oil rigs in the South China Sea.
Dung won praise when he denounced the Chinese in May 2014 for moving an oil rig off the Vietnamese coast, and many Vietnamese object to China’s island-building projects in disputed waters, and they resent China’s economic influence as they feel it smacks of Chinese imperial conquests. China moved the same oil rig moved on Saturday to a location where both countries' continental shelves overlap, Reuters reported.
"Vietnam requests that China does not conduct drilling actions and withdraw Hai Duong 981 from this area," Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said on Tuesday, referring to the rig by the Vietnamese name.
Vietnam formally accused China of violating its sovereignty after Beijing landed airplanes on islands it newly created in the South China Sea earlier this month.
While Vietnam and China are at odds in the South China Sea, Vietnam's options appear to be limited. The issue is expected to come up during the party congress. A draft of the party's political report admits that "there appear to be very complicated and unpredictable evolutions in the East Sea."
"It is not easy to solve this issue, said Nguyen The Ky, deputy head of the central committee’s propaganda department said: "We just cant always shout our protest even though protest is necessary."
While the Vietnamese body politic is experiencing a touch of schizophrenia don't expect its leaders to make a big swing to the west. Instead, the country's leaders are using the external and internal challenges to buttress the communist doctrine.
"Hostile forces are pushing up their sabotages against our country with their 'peaceful evolution' strategy and facilitating 'self-evolution' and 'self-transformation' aimed at removing the Party’s leadership and socialism in Vietnam," the draft political report reads. "For this reason, in the time to come, the task of party building should be strengthened."
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.