In Hanoi this week a pressure-packed political succession entered its final stages. But its outcomes remain undetermined. Instead, an intense struggle for power is underway within the country’s divided political elite, with leadership over the Communist Party hanging in the balance. With its expanding economy compromised by institutional weaknesses, its populous clamoring for more transparent and democratic governance, and its foreign relations confronted with escalating regional tensions, the implications of Vietnam’s leadership succession are not to be underestimated and extend well beyond Vietnam.
At the core of tensions is determination of the Party’s leadership for the 12th Party Congress, which will sit until 2021 and which is scheduled to get underway on the 21st of this month. Following tradition, the determination for the new leadership centers on the preparation of a leadership roster, which was to be finalized this week and voted upon next week, and which will ultimately determine who will occupy the positions of party general secretary, prime minister, state president, and national assembly president, among other key positions. The first two positions are the most powerful in Vietnam’s political hierarchy. Yet unlike China and, indeed, unlike most countries, Vietnam lacks a supreme leader and even a commander in chief.
The tensions in Vietnam this week center on a white-hot controversy that concerns both who is to be on the list and who has the right to decide it and thus with whom supreme authority lies.
Until very recently, the most compelling sub-plot in Vietnam’s leadership succession was the contest for the position of party general secretary, which had shaped up as a competition among the current general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters on the one hand and the camp of Vietnam’s sitting prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, on the other. At this late moment, the question of whether one or neither of these principals will secure leadership remains undecided, even as Trong has by appearances gained the upper hand.
Vietnam’s politics are not meant to be dramatic. Yet within the last few days the competition for the position of general secretary and decisional power over the leadership roster has taken a series of dramatic turns. Perhaps most strikingly, a struggle has emerged over the decisional authority of the current general secretary, the 16-member Politburo he leads, and the 175-member Party’s Central Committee, with a host of retired and current party power-brokers seeking influence to the best of their abilities. It is a political scrum, to put it mildly. And while it is worth knowing who the principal contestants for power are, the most vital questions arising from the leadership succession concern the direction of Vietnam’s politics itself.
Let us start with the contest for position of party general secretary. Sitting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s pursuit of the position draws support from the power base he has cultivated among elites across various sectors over the course of his two terms in office. Yet the prime minister is a controversial figure. To his supporters, he is Vietnam’s most eloquent statesman, a reform champion, and a patriot keen to end Hanoi’s deference to Beijing. Indeed, Dung projects a public commitment to market liberalizing reforms and a willingness to expand freedoms “in accordance with the law.”
Critics allege the prime minister is most committed to expanding the wealth and influence of his family and supporters and well-placed foreign investors, even from China. They hold him responsible for large-scale bankruptcies and profligate lending that have left Vietnam with an onerous public debt. According to these critics, Dung is a dangerous phony with a penchant for expanding his power while talking about “democracy” and “human rights” and vindictively silencing critics through draconian means. Conservatives mistrust the prime minister for his alleged association with ill-gotten wealth (over which he certainly has no monopoly), his willingness to hold Beijing to account for its expansionist conduct, and his enthusiasm for seeking advice from the likes of Tony Blair. And yet despite all this mistrust, Dung retains an enigmatic appeal. He has survived challenges by outwitting detractors.
Crucially, however, party conservatives, and in particular Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retain control over key levers of procedural power, and are using these to block Dung’s path to power. What is their plan?
Though ineligible for another full term due to age restrictions, there is precedent for the party secretary to install himself for another one or two years, during which time he may use his control over the means of Party discipline and ideology to buttress his support base and groom the viable successor he currently lacks. This is precisely what he has done.
Not known for his intellectual dynamism, Trong and his supporters’ grit and determination have caught many off guard. This is best illustrated by the party secretary’s under-the-radar success in cajoling central committee members to tacitly accept a decision authored by himself forbidding current or future committees from nominating or voting persons for leadership positions who are not on the official list endorsed by the general secretary himself. Outside his narrow support base, enthusiasm for two more years of Trong’s stewardship is modest at best. Yet Trong has won a level of support in the Politburo by offering potential swing votes a spot on the leadership roster he has authored.
However, through his aggressive pursuit (or usurpation, as some would have it) of authority, Trong himself has generated resentment, not only within the elite ranks of the central committee and Dung supporters, but also among broader segments of the Party and the general population. The upshot of this is that Vietnam’s leadership succession today is not limited to a competition between Dung and Trong and nor is it limited to the world of elite politics.
While many members of Vietnam elite have benefited from patron-client politics, years of political stalemate under the Trong-Dung rivalry have taken their toll, leading increasing ranks of hitherto-passive observers to the view that interest group politics of the sort Vietnam has developed have undermined the coherence and effectiveness of state policy. There is indeed a chance that Vietnam will say goodbye to both Dung and Trong. This could happen as a result of an unhappy compromise between the two camps. Still, for now this appears unlikely. Instead, a high-stakes and very public competition has taken shape.
Within the last few days however, two developments that only recently seemed unlikely have indeed occurred. The first of these developments is that, by most accounts, Trong has indeed nominated himself to serve an additional one or two years, despite age limits, while naming three other politburo members to his four-person roster, effectively terminating Dung’s candidacy.
Contest of Wills
But the story doesn’t end there. For over the course of the last several days the Central Committee together with at least one former politburo member have effectively declared the current party secretary’s ban on nominations to be illegal, null and void and have proceeded to put forward their own nominations, even as the Politburo has thus far declined to recognize them, and are even said to have rejected the general secretary’s roster by an open vote. The central committee, in other words, is claiming real authority in nominating and approving candidates. All of this sets the stage for a contest of wills for which there is decidedly no script.
No one knows how things will shape up. If one or both of the prime minister or party secretary exit, the main question is whether inheritors of the leadership-by-committee mantle will be mere acolytes of established interest-based camps or more independently minded leaders drawn from the politburo or, intriguingly, the military. If Trong prevails, slower reforms are likely. With Dung, all bets are off. Either way, Vietnam’s politics will be entering a new era.
For the 96 percent standing outside the party and the 99 percent standing outside the theater of elite politics, the struggle for Vietnam’s future has generated intense interest, albeit interest pulsing with currents of willful optimism, resignation, and outright desperation. While proponents of reforms lament the passing of yet another undemocratic election, others see the drama and chaos of the succession struggle as part of a larger process of political evolution.
Such a perspective is not without grounds. In recent years Vietnam’s political culture has become increasingly pluralistic. Vietnam is more open than China. Its citizens are less suppressed and exhibit a thirst for internationalization. With 30 million Facebook users and innumerable political blogs, the country has seen a rapid revival of interest in politics and in the long lost arts of social and political commentary. All of this is visible in the leadership struggle.
In recent weeks party elites have been leaking and counter-leaking internal memos and accusations and openly expressing their views over the Internet, while retired and even active party members have openly demanded the abandonment of Leninism as part of comprehensive institutional reforms. It is conceivable that the tensions and chaos kicked up by the current leadership succession will lend momentum to these calls. The notion that only tiny fractions of Vietnam’s population are interested in politics is fading fast. Indeed, Vietnam’s politics are evolving more rapidly than its political elites recognize.
While Vietnamese vary in their political perspectives, there is a broad desire among them for the country’s politics to be liberated from unaccountable politics dominated by entrenched elites. Whether the 12th party congress brings that outcome closer remains to be seen.
Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).