By: David Brown
The Vietnamese Communist party's 13th plenum adjourned at midday on October 10 with an end-of-meeting communique that revealed only that the 200 or so Central Committee members discussed "personnel matters." According to a blogger known to have better-than-average pipelines to the party center, "all sides were locked in a life and death struggle for dominance."
This was the meeting that according to custom is supposed to agree on who will run Vietnam for the next five years and who will be retired. If all had gone as smoothly as General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his acolytes hoped, he'd have in hand now a list of candidates, exactly as many as there are leadership level jobs, for rubber-stamping when the party convenes its 13th congress early in 2021.
We ordinary folks can conclude with certainty that the sorting-out process is still going on. That is because the official briefers have told us that there will be another plenum in late December, shortly before some 1600 delegates to the party congress convene in Hanoi.
Coffee shop gossip has it that Trong, the party's leader for the last 10 years, has been unable to persuade his peers to endorse Tran Quoc Vuong as his successor. Vuong has been Trong's chief lieutenant in a high-profile campaign to cleanse the party of backsliders, deviationists, and those who are merely corrupt.
The aforementioned blogger, a retired senior official, reported on October 3 that "as the end of Trong's term approaches, his power has ebbed along with his health. His stroke has left him wobbly and mumbling." It's looking more and more, said the blogger, like a reprise of the epic battle before the 12th Congress between Trong and his would-be successor, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Or maybe not quite so epic. This time the battle is unlikely to spill into the public domain, and it is strongly rumored that in place of Trong's man Tran Quoc Vuong, incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (above) already commands the support of most Central Committee members.
On October 12, the retired official blogged that consensus has been reached. Phuc will be general secretary, he said. The current deputy prime minister, Truong Hoa Binh, will serve as state president, and the current Hanoi party chief, Vuong Dinh Hue, will succeed Phuc as prime minister. Either Ms Truong Thi Mai, now the head of the party's Civil Affairs Board, or two-term foreign minister Pham Binh Minh will take the helm of the National Assembly.
Nothing is certain, however, until a majority of the party's central committee has endorsed a set of candidates and, in January, the 13th party Congress has acclaimed them. First, it may help to ponder the nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party (CPV for short).
The party's Rites of Renewal
The CPV wields absolute power on behalf of the nation's 95 million citizens. Metaphorically, if Vietnam's government is the skeleton of the state, the party, from the most obscure village chief to the leaders we've been discussing, is the muscle that moves that skeleton.
There is about one party member for every 15 Vietnamese over 15 years of age. For most members, joining the party was merely a career move. They don't actually presume to wield political power. However, perhaps half a million members – officials in villages, districts, provinces and at the center, leaders of mass organizations, managers in state-affiliated enterprises, directors of institutes, commissars, principals, deans, editors, etc. – expect to be consulted on decisions impacting their respective spheres. They are, we might say, the constituencies of the 200 regular and alternate members of the party's central committee, the body where the "life and death struggle" is acted out every five years.
Regular renewal of the CPV leadership is serious business. The rules are crafted to prevent any faction or clique from gaining permanent ascendency, or the emergence of an autocratic leader like, for example, China's Xi Jinping. For the last 40 years or so, power has passed reliably from one set of party leaders to the next.
Analysts tend to explain the CPV's leadership selection dynamics by reference to party rules on regional balance and mandatory retirement age. In practice, these are just guidelines, made to be bent and when necessary broken in order to achieve a consensus on who's going to be elevated into which positions, who will get to set the agenda and make decisions going forward.
Plenty of party-watchers insist that all that really matters are the spoils of office. I disagree. It's also possible to understand the current intra-party fracas as another round in a continuing contest between people who prioritize making good policy and those who think that only if the dogma and discipline are correct will good government follow.
Back in 2010, stories in the “state media” frequently lamented the ebbing of the party's political legitimacy. In retrospect, it's easy to see that these echoed internal party criticism directed at Prime Minister Dung and his factional allies for alleged mismanagement. And though Vietnam had been rocked by the Great Recession, the spectacular failures of state-owned shipbuilding and shipping companies and a wrenching bout of inflation, Dung managed to win a second term as PM. The hitherto obscure Nguyen Phu Trong, however, was named General Secretary, and his aim was to scuttle Dung.
The politburo is a 15-to-20 member collective leadership drawn from the central committee. The general secretary is first among his politburo equals. By 2012, Trong had persuaded a large majority of them that Dung, seen as congenitally insubordinate as well as ambitious, just had to go. Rather than resign, Dung appealed to the central committee and saved his job.
Dung cherished hopes of replacing Trong as head of the party in 2015. Trong wasn't having it. He rallied an 'anybody but Dung' coalition and painted Dung, with some truth, as an enabler of corrupt 'interests.' After months of semi-public sparring between the factions, the dogmatists prevailed. Dung was out.
Trong has had a good run. Campaigning in 2015, he promised to prosecute official corruption, and has surprised public opinion by delivering vigorously on that promise. Trong says he's pleased by the success of his campaign to replace "backsliders" and "deviationists" in the party's ranks by "model cadres." In parallel, the screws have progressively tightened on citizens who dare to challenge the party-state regime, whether online or off.
It's said that after the general secretary suffered a stroke in April 2019, Ms. Trong's adamant opposition stilled consideration of extending his term for another five years, or even for two. Trong instead focused on firming up his legacy by putting proteges from the party center into key jobs, and in particular on seeing Tran Quoc Vuong selected as the next general secretary. Vuong, now head of the party's central office, has been Trong's indispensable lieutenant in the anti-corruption campaign. On the downside, like most who play the hatchet-man role, Vuong is not particularly popular with many members of the central committee.
And, for central committee members who have wearied of five years' focus on cleansing the party of bad elements, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc must look like an attractive alternative, a leader who is 'red' enough but whose real talent lies in running the government.
The Heirs Apparent
Until now, the General Secretary of the CPV has always been from Vietnam's northern region. Not only is Nguyen Xuan Phuc from the center, but his path to the top has been highly unusual. He passed the first 28 years of his career as a bureaucrat in Quang Nam, his home province, just south of Danang City. He'd risen to #2 in the provincial party organization and was a brand-new member of the party's central committee when, in 2006, Prime Minister Dung arranged his transfer to Hanoi to help bring order to the cabinet's business.
Evidently, Phuc was very good in that assignment. Eighteen months later, he was named cabinet secretary and in 2011, was elevated to the Politburo member and named 1st Deputy Prime Minister.
In the run-up to the 12th Congress in 2015, as we have seen, Trong managed to foil Dung's attempt to unseat him as general secretary. Somehow Phuc emerged from the wreckage of the Dung government as a consensus choice to serve as prime minister. Many would say that he's managed that job brilliantly.
The State President always leads Vietnam's participation in state visits and ceremonies. As head of the National Defense and Security Committee, he has considerable sway over the ministries of public security (police) and defense. Some incumbents of the position have carved out a larger role in national affairs by virtue of their seniority and relationships with their Politburo peers. When State President Tran Dai Quang died in 2018, it was decided to have General Secretary Trong take on the additional role of state president until the 13th Congress.
Truong Hoa Binh, who is now said to be the consensus choice to succeed Trong as State President, has many years of service in Vietnam's judicial institutions. Since 2016 he has been 1st Deputy Prime Minister. Binh's revolutionary career began as a teenage courier for the underground Saigon-Cholon revolutionary committee during the "American War," making him very likely the last veteran of that conflict to serve on the Politburo.
The Prime Minister-apparent, Vuong Dinh Hue, has distinguished himself in a succession of economic policy roles, and served as first deputy prime minister under Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Since early on, he's been a consensus choice to follow Phuc. To round out his resume with a bit of party-side experience, Hue was appointed party secretary for Hanoi in February, 2020.
Because the National Assembly rarely shapes policy, its chairman is arguably the least of the "four pillars" of the party-state. Truong Thi Mai would likely fill this role capably though the principal argument for elevation from her current position seems to be a touch of gender balance at the top. Alternatively, the nation's top diplomat, Pham Binh Minh, may be dealt the National Assembly job as consolation for being passed over as State President.
About half of the current Politburo's membership will age out, and their younger successors will be acclaimed by the coming party congress. It's possible to guess at many of the new faces, though as with the four top jobs just discussed, there's lots of bargaining going on and, in the words of American baseball immortal Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over."
One sure addition to the politburo will be Nguyen Van Nen, who has served since 2016 as chief of the party's central office and was named the new party secretary for Ho Chi Minh City on October 11. Nen's almost a local boy: his home base is Tay Ninh province, just north of the southern megalopolis.
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