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Professor Carlyle A. Thayer
The Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is scheduled to convene its Ninth National Party Congress in early April. Party congresses are held every five years and are attended by delegates representing the VCP’s apparatus at central and provincial levels, the military, and special bureaucratic interest groups. Approximately one thousand delegates representing the party’s 2.1 million members will assemble and elect the country’s top political leadership: members of the Central Committee, Politburo and Secretary General.
In January, the Central Committee recommended that, with the exception of ‘key cadres,’ no party member aged 65 years of age or older should be permitted to stand for re-election. If the Central Committee’s resolution is applied strictly, eight of the eighteen members of the present Politburo would be forced to retire. The Central Committee also voted to reduce its size (170 at present) and promote younger officials in order to achieve a better balance between the ‘three generations’ (under 50, 50-60, and over 60).
A senior Central Committee official offered his personal opinion that ‘people over 70 years should not even take key posts.’ This remark was widely viewed as being directed at the incumbent Secretary General Le Kha Phieu who was born in December 1931.
As the Ninth Party Congress approaches, the performance of all Politburo members has come under intense scrutiny. It is widely expected that between eight to ten incumbent members will be dropped. Various party factions, personality cliques, sectoral groups and the military are lobbying to ensure that their interests and policy preferences are reflected in the new leadership.
The military is reportedly disenchanted with Le Kha Phieu, a former political commissar. The military would like to reclaim the post of state President because the president is designated commander-in-chief by the constitution. The present incumbent, Tran Duc Luong, is a civilian technocrat. The most likely choice to replace Luong is the present Defence Minister, Pham Van Tra.
The current Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai, has twice tendered his resignation due to frustration over conservative interference with his economic reform program. Khai is expected to retire and be replaced by his understudy, first Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Le Kha Phieu is fighting a rearguard action to retain his position as party chief. It is unclear if recent civil unrest in the central highlands has strengthened his hand or not. A straw poll conducted in February among Central Committee members revealed that Nguyen Phu Trong is the current favourite to replace Phieu.
Trong, aged 57, was first appointed to the Politburo in 1997. He assumed oversight of ideology, culture, science and education matters. In this position he has assumed ever increasing managerial and policy-making role within the party. He is presently secretary of the Hanoi City party committee. His elevation to party Secretary General is not expected to result in any marked changes in policy and would be welcomed by the military and party conservatives.
The VCP has not yet reached a consensus on leadership positions. In fact it will fall to the new Central Committee selected at the Ninth Congress to elect the next Politburo and party Secretary General. Even if the projected leadership turnover is larger than previously, it is unlikely that this will result in any marked deviations from Vietnam’s present policy course.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
WATCHPOINT: Leadership changes at the Ninth Party Congress will not result in a major reform program or doi moi 2.
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