Vietnamese communists have opted for a gentler style of leadership with the election of 66-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong as Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)—and they have the future very much in mind.
His style, described as grandfatherly by some and weak by others, will offer a refreshing change to Nong Duc Manh, who retired as party chief with a 10-year legacy marked by factionalism and a sharp drop in his country’s economic fortunes.
Among other posts filled as the five year CPV Congress drew to a close was the re-appointment of Nguyen Tan Dung to the politburo, which will allow him to serve a second term as prime minister, a position that will eclipse Trong.
Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung, meanwhile, was re-elected and CPV heavyweight Truong Tan Sang was tapped for the mainly symbolic post of president.
Both are rivals to Dung, who appears to have won-out.
About 1,400 delegates attended the Congress, which was festooned by the trademark hammer and sickle and busts of the nation's founding father and revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. In opening the Congress, Manh praised the country’s economic development before veering down a familiar path warning of moral and social decay, while claiming hostile forces were using democracy and human rights in an attempt to overthrow the ruling party.
In exiting, however, Manh also took responsibility for many of the flaws within the CPV, the party founded 81-years-ago by Ho, which became evident during his tenure.
‘I, myself, to some extent, haven’t met the expectations of the people and the Communist members,’ he said. ‘I honour the reports that you heard over the days that pointed out shortcomings, in the party’s leadership, for the party’s central committee, and I also take my responsibility.’
Like Manh, Trong is expected to push for closer economic ties with China, a move that has alienated factions of the CPV who hold steadfast to the view of China as Vietnam's traditional enemy. Unlike Manh, Trong isn’t expected to compete with Dung in the halls of power.
More broadly, Dung and Hung were a vote for continuity and will be formally confirmed by parliament later in the year.
And it promises to be a difficult year. The economy remains in poor shape, with large trade and current account deficits, double digit inflation and a currency that reflects these economic realities. The dong has been devalued three times since 2009.
In addition, corruption continues to dog reform in the one-party state. Dissent is deeply frowned upon, and a crackdown last year resulted in 40 people being arrested over free speech issues. Still, the leadership insists Vietnam will become a modern industrialized state by 2020.
Given that the CPV will probably be the sole arbiter in determining whether such a status is achieved, you can bet your bottom dong there’ll be no hesitations—when the next party Congress rolls around in five years time—among leaders claiming the cherished dream is in sight.
Ten years from now, the party will assure its people Vietnam stands among the brotherhood of industrialized nations. Whether anybody else believes them will depend on what Dung and Trong do in the immediate years ahead.