Update: As expected, Supporters of Viet General Secretary Trong Prevail

On January 25, supporters of Nguyen Tan Dung mounted a vigorous floor fight to add the two-time Prime Minister to the approved list of Central Committee candidates. According to reliable reports late in the day, they failed to muster a majority of the 1510 delegates.

Because only members of the Central Committee are eligible to become General Secretary of the Communist Party, Dung has definitively lost his bid to replace the incumbent, Nguyen Phu Trong, and has no option but to retire.

To the foreign reporters’ collective chagrin, the exciting part of Vietnam’s quintennial process of political renewal was all over, a week before the 12th Congress officially convened. After months of intense lobbying for votes and seats, the membership of the party’s new Central Committee (180 regulars, another two dozen alternates, approximately) and the regime’s top leaders had been decided by an extraordinary 14th Plenum of the current Central Committee.

The plenum met from Jan. 11 to 14. Like all party meetings, it was closed to ordinary folks, but the coffee shops and the cybersphere were full of rumors. Was Nguyen Tan Dung going to succeed in his audacious bid to follow 10 years as prime minister with five years in the Party’s top job, General Secretary? Alternatively, could the incumbent General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, mobilize an “anybody but Dung” coalition?

Despite a last-minute attempt by Dung to reverse the situation, Trong pulled it off. Dung had successfully branded himself as a relative reformer, a social media-savvy, sophisticated politician and the sort of leader who’s comfortable debating development theory and “strategic trust” with other world leaders. In short, he stood out from a grayish crowd of colleagues.

Dung was the apparent frontrunner but not without vulnerabilities, among them a reputation for managing the levers of government power to ensure the loyalty of “the interests,” that largish bloc of party heavyweights deemed to put personal gain well ahead of ideology.

Cast in the underdog role, Trong was, depending on one’s point of view, either Mr. Clean or Mr. Deadly Dull. In former days, he’d been regarded as China’s most devoted friend among the regime’s leaders. As Beijing stepped up its quest for hegemony in the South China Sea, which is every bit as much or more Vietnam’s own backyard, Trong cooperated in repositioning Vietnam a bit further from China and closer to the US. His odyssey was capped by his 90-minute meeting with Barack Obama at the White House last July.

Trong emerged from that meeting declaring himself satisfied that the US has no evil intentions toward Vietnam’s single-party, Leninist-model political system. Many observers, this one included, calculated that having fulfilled his historical role, Trong would retire after the 12th Congress. We reckoned wrong; in the course of two tense plenums, Trong appears to have derailed the Dung political machine.

Chatter on the cybersphere credits Trong with skilful manipulation of party rules and a whispering campaign that caught Dung wrong-footed. It will likely be a while before non-participants learn exactly how Dung ended up off the list of pre-approved candidates for the party’s new Central Committee, a list with exactly as many names as seats to be filled. Culminating this process of democratic centralism, the 2000 delegates to the 12th Congress are primed to confirm these nominations – an act that will consign Dung to retirement.

Or will they? Among non-party Vietnamese, disappointment that the party has rejected Dung is widespread and in many cases profound. They’re grasping at a heap of rumors to the effect that a delegates’ revolt will in one way or another put the prime minister back on the ballot and ultimately into the party’s top job. These scenarios will almost certainly will be revealed to be wishful thinking when the Congress adjourns on Jan. 28.

The policy implications of Dung’s failed bid to become the strongest party leader in 30 years will only gradually come clear. Most certainly there will be a loss of momentum as Vietnam’s new leaders sort out their relationships and choose their subordinates. Dung could become the target of inquiries into how much wealth he’s accumulated and where it is stashed, though the party does not as a rule hound those who consent to retire.

The foreign policy consensus hammered out over the past 18 months will endure. The 14th plenum made a point of endorsing the TPP agreement, removing doubt that under new leadership, Vietnam’s ruling party might fall off the path of energetic globalization.

Most in doubt is the pace of political and economic reform over the next five years. Will Vietnam’s new leaders give more than lip service to reducing the State’s direct role in the economy? Will they give up trying to control what people are allowed to read and say? Will they have the cohesion and will to seize opportunities that flow from TPP membership? Will the regime continue its fitful progress toward greater transparency and regulatory clarity? Will it continue an open door to foreign investment? Will it find ways to provide effective support and needed credit to domestic entrepreneurs?

In sum, Vietnam’s all-powerful ruling party has nearly completed its ritual of renewal. Dung’s challenge to the way things are always done has failed. Aging leaders will be retired, younger people promoted to important jobs, equilibrium once again has been preserved. The work of governing begins again.

David Brown is a retired US diplomat with extensive background in Vietnamese politics and is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.