Is Vietnam on the cusp of change?
Time for a fling
Every five years, Vietnamese dare to hope that this time, the ruling Communist Party will take a chance on change.
Four successive party congresses have just kicked the ball down the road. They’ve redistributed positions mainly with a view to preserving factional balance. The leadership has been left deadlocked on core issues: Vietnam’s stance toward China and other powers, the state’s role in the economy and whether party actions should be subject to review by independent judges.
The 12th party Congress will convene early in 2016. About 1,400 delegates will assemble in Hanoi to confirm agreements hammered out among the party’s heavyweights. The most likely outcome is the election of the current Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, to the top party post: general secretary. A majority of his allies and protégés will likely be elevated to the party Politburo or executive committee.
The foreign media are apt to spin the 12th Congress as a referendum on Vietnam’s foreign policy orientation: will the party’s pro-Chinese wing cling to key posts or must they yield to a pro-American faction? They’ll be behind the curve. That perennial issue was resolved six months ago when US President Barack Obama assured the current General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, that the United States is quite okay with Vietnam’s current political system. China has lost Vietnam’s “strategic trust” and the United States is on the way to winning it. It’s an epochal shift that has positioned Hanoi between the two superpowers but in the pocket of neither.
Dung holds sway
At the 12th Congress, Dung seems poised to dominate. He’s a savvy politician who in 10 years as prime minister has built a formidable bloc of supporters, a coalition of reformers (by party standards) and opportunists. On the current Central Committee, they’re a solid majority who have twice blocked unusually public attempts by the Politburo to trim Dung’s sails.
Party members know that revolutionary slogans no longer move the masses. It has been 40 years since the nation was unified under Communist rule and the median age of its 92 million citizens is 28. Most delegates to the 12th Congress would agree that what matters now is “performance legitimacy” – the good vibes that flow from firm, sound and just leadership. Can the party deliver?
The party still monopolizes power, but it no longer monopolizes political life. The Hanoi regime must contend with an internet-enabled chorus of dissidents who have grown steadily more sophisticated and persuasive in their analysis of the party’s political underperformance. Online critics flay the regime as captive of “the interests,” crony capitalists who are all too apt to trade cash for political favors.
Assuming the prime minister’s slate will prevail, the interests are likely to line up behind him rather than find themselves marginalized. Thus Dung and his protégés may be voted into power by a huge majority of the renewed Central Committee membership. Will Dung then be in position to press a reform agenda, to don the mantle of a Vietnamese Lee Kuan Yew or Park Chung-hee? Don’t bet on it yet.