HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam’s pro-business prime minister has effectively withdrawn from a contest to become the Communist Party chief, clearing the way for his rival to keep the post in what appears to be a compromise to present a united front to the nation, delegates at a party congress said Monday.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had mounted a last-minute challenge during the congress after being excluded from an official list of candidates for positions in a key party panel. Had he continued his challenge, he could have become part of the Central Committee, and subsequently could have been in contention for party general secretary.
The path is now clear for Nguyen Phu Trong to stay as general secretary, the de facto top position in Vietnam’s collective leadership.
Several delegates at the congress said Dung decided on Sunday to abide by party rules that obliged him to refuse the nomination for a Central Committee slot proposed by his supporters. The congress then voted on Monday to accept his refusal, completing a formality. The Central Committee, one of two pillars of the ruling establishment, will be chosen Tuesday.
Trong has been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well before the party congress, which takes place once every five years to choose new leaders.
This year, the rivalry between Dung and Trong has gone down to the wire in the party congress, which began last Thursday and ends this Thursday. But regardless of who is in power the fundamental makeup of the government and its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.
Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms, and being bold enough to confront China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea. But even though Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, is now set to take the top job, it doesn’t mean the economic reforms will stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese assertiveness in Vietnamese-claimed waters, according to observers.
“Ideologically, there isn’t a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert based in Washington, DC.
Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
Trong’s camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.
On Tuesday, the delegates will be presented with 222 candidates in an election for the 180-member Central Committee. After that, they will elect at least 16 members of the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam. It is possible that the Politburo will be expanded to 18 members this year.
Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority, the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the National Assembly.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million out of its 93 million people. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.
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